Monday, July 16, 2012

Stendhal Syndrome (A Very Long Post about a Very Strange Phenomenon)

Last week I saw my first Botticelli
and almost fainted...

--from "The Poet Visits the Museum of Fine Arts" by Mary Oliver

Recently, while reading Currystrumpet's gorgeous descriptions of Italian art, I learned about Stendhal Syndrome for the very first time.  Deepa described the sensation of feeling like her "eyeballs were going to pop out" after viewing the pieces at the Vatican Museums, and I realized that I have experienced similar circumstances on several occasions in my life.  Despite the fact that I've never been to Italy, I studied Art History in college and it's safe to say that art truly has an emotional effect on me.

There isn't much information available about Stendhal Syndrome, named for the author who wrote about his own strange experiences after viewing works of art in Florence. Most documented cases of this phenomenon, which can cause temporary fainting, dizziness, heart palpitations, and confusion, seem to occur in Florence, most often at the Uffizi Gallery, which Deepa visited.  Simply taking in the massive number of artistic pieces proves too much for some people, and they are physically overcome by the multitude of beauty surrounding them. 

The syndrome is controversial, and many doubt its existence, but in 2010, scientists did perform a study to test the reality of these symptoms on visitors at a museum in Florence.  And you can read about the experience of Jane Chafin, Director of the Offramp Gallery, here.  Her article includes the video of one man's physical reaction to the works of Donald Judd, and it reminded me of Ryan's reactions to the births of our sons.  It is that profound.

Clearly, art affects people, and for some, the feeling is overwhelming.  My first awareness of what might be labeled Stendhal Syndrome came in elementary school, when my family drove from our home in San Antonio to visit the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin.  My mother is a lover of textiles, and while she attended a quilt and fabric show, my father, sisters, and I explored the museum.

A replica of The Goddess of Liberty, which sits atop the state capitol, was on display, and I remember feeling terrified at the enormity of her presence in the room.  To be completely honest, she is not a Southern beauty by any means, and her features are quite exaggerated, since they are meant to be viewed from the ground below her perch overlooking Austin.  Still, she felt alive to me, and I stood, frozen in both awe and fear, staring at her for a very long time.  Even now, looking at pictures of The Goddess of Liberty, I still feel a chill creeping up my spine.

In my college Art History classes, we spent a lot of time staring at slides on a screen, and I never experienced anything beyond an appreciation for each work's beauty and meaning.  This was back in the old days before everyone had access to the internet, and when my dad purchased an online version of the Encarta Encyclopedia, my sisters and I spent hours gazing at the 360 views of ancient Greek and Roman structures, and taking in famous Italian works.

You can view the Sistine Chapel online in its full splendour (warning: this link plays music), and I cannot look at it for more than a few seconds without becoming dizzy.  I might as well stare at crime scene photos, because the reaction would be the same, I think; and I feel physically frightened by the site of such immense beauty in one small place.  If this is my reaction after looking at a picture, what would happen to me in real life, standing in the actual chapel?  And how is it possible for art to have such a powerful effect upon some people, and not others?

The last time I experienced the sensations of Stendhal Syndrome came while visiting my middle sister, who was working abroad in Birmingham, England in 2005.  We were fortunate to be there during an art festival, and Benjamin Verdonck, the Belgian performance artist, had successfully built what looked like a giant swallow's nest on the outside of a large building in downtown Birmingham.  For several days, Verdonck lived inside the nest, and my sisters and I would stand and stare as he performed different antics, high above the city center.

Again, I felt that terrible feeling of fear, but this stemmed more from concern for his own personal well-being, as he was precariously perched so high above us.  I distinctly remember watching his nest at night, with a warm glow of a lamp illuminating from it, and realized that he was watching us in wonder, just as we stood watching him.  Eventually, Verdonck did "fly" from his nest in an elaborately staged scene, and the results were tragic, at least for regular humans, who are meant to stay firmly rooted upon the ground. 

Benjamin Verdonck's nest installation in Birmingham, England.
The artist emerging from his nest, over and over again.  This was chilling to me.
Verdonck eventually flew his nest, leaving his suit behind.
An ambulance stationed below the nest on the final day of the installation.
Verdonck's metaphorical final resting place.
For me, viewing art is a deeply personal experience, and I often feel a connection to a piece immediately upon seeing it for the first time.  I like to think about the artist who created it, touching it with his or her own hands, working lovingly for many months or years, and even if that was hundreds or thousands of years ago, I can still feel their presence in the room.  Maybe that connection causes such a visceral reaction for me.  It's almost as if the piece itself is alive, in some way, and I am fully aware of its spiritual presence standing next to me.

I know that must sound insane, and my husband, who saw the Sistine Chapel as a young boy, thinks I am absolutely crazy.  But there must be something to this syndrome, and I find it absolutely fascinating.

Have you ever experienced an unexpected reaction to art?