If, in January of 2014, you were an avid follower of Before the Art, you may have found yourself experiencing some disappointment when suddenly, with no explanation, posts stopped appearing. Day and weeks turned into months. None of the promised articles from the Art and Food series appeared. Nor did any additions to the reading list. The birthdays of Manet, Michelangelo, Goya, Raffael and Velazquez were neglected uniformly. “What,” you may have thought, “the hell is going on?”
Before answering this question, just take a second to reflect on the grisly implications an opposite situation might have had. After all, an overabundance of posts with their accompanying images might have led to occurrences of Stehndal syndrome in various committed readers.
Stendhal Syndrome, first classified in the late 1980’s, is a condition that results from a concentrated exposure to art. Faced with the colours and forms from the hands of the Old Masters, the susceptible viewer is struck suddenly with sensations of dizziness, fits of fainting and even hallucinations.
After the condition was identified, psychologists, historians and critics started noting instances of it cropping up well before the 1980’s. Most famously Stendhal, the French author and namesake of the condition, experienced a spell of disorientation after seeing Giotto’s frescos in the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1817.
I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.
Some years later, in 1867, Fyodor Dostoevsky came across Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, and was similarly overwhelmed. “The painting had a crushing impact on Fyodor Mikhailovich,” his wife Anna writes in her diary.
…I went into other rooms. When I came back after fifteen or twenty minutes, I found him still riveted to the same spot in front of the painting. His agitated face had a kind of dread in it, something I had noticed more than once during the first moments of an epileptic seizure.
The same painting appears in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, where it is described as having the power to make the viewer lose his faith, and is recalled at length in the words of a suicidal, nihilistic student who meditates on it while dying of Consumption.
In 1921, Marcel Proust saw Vermeer’s View of the Delft. In volume five of A la recherché du temps perdu the painting appears in a Stendhalian passage describing (spoiler alert) the death of the novelist Bergotte.
His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. “That’s how I ought to have written,” he said. “My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall”…
A few lines later, seized with fits of dizziness, the writer falls dead onto the floor of the gallery.
But don’t worry, no matter how sensitive you are, you’re unlikely to come down with a spot of Stendhal from looking at a blog. Stendhal syndrome – also referred to as “hyperkulteramia” or “Florence syndrome” – is often linked the stress of travelling, the heat of the city and jet lag. Graziella Magherini, the psychologist who published the definitive study on the syndrome in 1989 (La Sindrome di Stendhal) located it particularly in the reaction of overwhelmed tourists coming to Florence. Even then, examining toursits who were faced with the works housed in the Ufizzi, the Academia and Santa Croce, she only encountered 107 cases during the five years of the study.
Cases of the disorder are much more common and much sexier in fiction. In 1996, an Italian film, Stendhal Syndrome, made its bizarre way into cinemas everywhere. As well as showing up in Dostoevsky and Proust, Chuck Palahniuk uses the idea of mass fascination with art in his 2003 novel The Diary. The syndrome shows up again in a season 1 episode of “The L Word,” when one of the characters sees a photograph of a model. The list goes on.
Despite – or maybe because of – all these fictional manifestations, it’s easy to be skeptical about having such a strong reaction to the usually passive activity of viewing art.
On the other hand, it’s more difficult to have a relationship with a piece of art than with most other art forms. You can’t really clap for a piece of art. You can’t sing along with it, memorise bits of it to recite. You can’t touch it. And here, in the 21st century with millennia of art at our fingertips, some of it great and much of it fascinating, just standing there looking can get frustrating.
In a way it’s understandable to want to feel connected to a part of that history, even if it’s by literally throwing a fit over the fact that you liked it.
Still, I wouldn’t advise it for the most part. Like with many things, the greatest enjoyment of art is found in developing layers and layers of understanding and association. So learn about art and share what you think and know. Enjoy it and write about it. And (for the most part, anyway) Before the Art will be here to help you as you do.