In my last entry I wrote about how, when I was 17 and in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I burst into tears upon first seeing Simone Martini’s lovely Annunciation. I thought I had read somewhere that John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, had written about the phenomenon of swooning before great art, but I wasn’t sure. Well, it wasn’t him — but there really is an art swoon, and it’s named after the famous 19th century French author Stendhal, the pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle, who wrote about it in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio.
Wikipedia says: “Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal’s syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. . . Although there are many descriptions of people becoming dizzy and fainting while taking in Florentine art, especially at the Uffizi, dating from the early 19th century on, the syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed and described more than 100 similar cases among tourists and visitors in Florence.” Another source says that victims are usually young, unmarried women who are seeing the original art for the first time. So apparently I had a textbook case!
While reading up on Stendhal Syndrome, I stumbled across a reference to a movie called The Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome de Stendhal), a European cult film written and directed by Dario Argento. Argento said the film was inspired by his own experience of disorientation while visiting the Parthenon as a child. It sounded pretty interesting, so I ordered it from Netflix and watched it one Sunday afternoon. It sucked, not least because it featured my unfavorite thing in movies, prolonged scenes of torture. The movie was about a woman who is overcome by a bad case of S. S. in Florence, while working as a police investigator on a serial murder case. She is kidnapped by the killer, a handsome blond man named Alfredo, who rapes and tortures her in a romantically decayed medieval catacomb beneath the city. She kills him, then becomes possessed by the killer, which causes her to start wearing a blonde wig and kill people. In between all this, she is swooning over the art in the Uffizi, although what that has to do with the serial killer I forget.
While watching the movie, I remembered my own very short and innocent fling with a handsome blond Italian fellow named Alfredo while I was in Florence in 1969 — although he was an architecture student, not a serial killer as far as I know. After I came home, he sent me a letter written in his charming Italo-English, which I tossed out of a moving car on Kingston Pike in Knoxville — I distinctly remember hesitating, my eyes on the return address, the wind sucking it out the window, watching it flutter down the highway — while the man who became my first husband sat beside me, never noticing what I had done. Thus we make our choices.
More Stendhal Syndrome madness
A few weeks ago, in a used bookstore, I came across a book I’d noticed before: Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams. I knew it was about Bosch, one of my favorite painters, and I’ve never seen his work in person, as far as I can remember. I’d opened the book before and scanned a few pages, hoping it would snag me, but decided her writing style was disjointed and overblown. I like clarity in a memoir. But something made me buy it this time. When I got home, I sat down and started reading and was amazed — although she never calls it by name, right there in chapter one she’s having a major attack of Stendhal Syndrome in Madrid’s Prado Musuem in front of Heironymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych! Her experience goes far beyond mine at the Uffizi. She seems to have had an almost psychotic break, leaves her husband (they are Mormons who have taken a marriage vow for all eternity), and spends months or even years in Madrid, becoming “the woman who stares at Bosch.”
Then while slowly slogging through Leap last night, a strange synchronicity occurred. The book had no illustrations, so I dug up an old article I’d saved about Bosch, from the Smithsonian magazine, which often has informative articles on famous artists with color pictures. The article detailed the theories of Wilhelm Fraenger, who believed that Bosch had been a member of the Brethren of the Free Spirits, or Adamites. I read the words, “. . . a secret, heretical sect that practiced nudity and sexual promiscuity in an attempt to re-create the innocence of the Garden of Eden.” At the very moment I read the word “innocence,” downstairs I heard someone on television boom “Innocence!!” followed by something about sexual orgies and witchcraft. Holy crap. The coincidence was so striking I went downstairs to see what on earth was on tv. It turned out my husband was watching old episodes of Blackadder: Blackadder, Rowen Atkinson’s comic 15th century misfit, is tried for witchcraft and is being interrogated by the Witch-Smeller Persuivant (that made me snort out loud). I have no idea whatsoever about what such a coincidence could mean, except that the universe is laughing at me.
Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist
The other day while watching during the afternoon after work, I ran across a rerun of the last episode of Bravo’sWork of Art: The Next Great Artist. I’d heard about the show before, and had meant to watch, but I never can keep up with what’s on tv anymore, and it slipped my mind. I was glad Abdi Farah won, not only because of his obvious talent, but because he seemed more positive and upbeat than the others, with a real will to draw and paint which would not be denied. One of the judges, Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine, sniped at Abdi a bit for his traditionalist approach (a sketchbook of drawings — so art school; figurative paintings on a wall), but thankfully the other judges must have disagreed.
Reading an article on the internet about Peregrine Honig (I had to look on Google to find her last name; the Bravo site refers to all the contestants by their first names only, demeaning I think), she seemed to be pursuing the same conceptual themes that she has for the last several years: drawings and prints of people vomiting, and an obsession with a pair of stuffed fawn fetuses she found in a shop years ago. She made wax casts of apparently purchased kitsch toys and figurines, and used her project money to have the fawn fetuses professionallly photographed. I can’t believe I read that correctly. The judges went wild over the photos of the fawns, which Peregrine said symbolized creativity and birth. Miles Mendenhall — an art-school golden boy, having won competitions and scholarships — took cell-phone photos of a homeless man who, by happenstance, died soon after the pictures were made. Then Miles enlarged the photos until they became completely unrecognizable dots and printed the dots super-large-scale to create a series of visually connected but meaningless abstract images. He said the homeless man’s death moved him emotionally, but his empty images distanced both himself and the viewer from any hint of feeling.
Peregrine and Miles both seemed fairly ordinary art-school submissives — nervous and washed-out. I was intrigued to read that Peregrine’s inspirations include the underground comic legend, R. Crumb. He’s one of my favorites, too. I wonder when she gave up drawing, or trying to learn to draw. I’m convinced that most people go to art school for a simple reason — because they want to draw — but so many end up having that simple desire put down until they finally give up and go home, or learn to play the Art Game. Peregrine looked so sad and drawn. Perhaps the dead fawns symbolized something in her that had died. I dunno. I’m probably going over the line here.