Thursday, September 23, 2010

Do you swoon?

What happens to you when you look at great works of art? Okay, let me rephrase the question: does anything happen to you when you look at art at all? I feel amazingly refreshed and excited when I am in the presence of very good art; I feel something when I am in the presence of art, period.

There's an historical precedent for an exagerrated version of this phenomenon. It's called "Stendhal Syndrome" as noted in this article from London's Telegraph. The term is rooted in the eponymous author's feeling or rush from seeing Renaissance masters when he visited Florence in 1817. Consider that the 19th century had no shortage of light, feeble, and consumptive personalities --- many who contributed richly to the fabric of the humanities, particularly the fine arts and literature of the time. It makes complete sense that the condition would be named after one such character, Monsieur Marie-Henrie Beyle, also known as Stendhal.

Those suffering from Stendhal Syndrome are known to evidence "rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations...[when] exposed to extraordinary artistic achievement, whether it is paintings or sculptures." Clearly, this is not a harmful condition, however, the effects "are serious enough for [subjects] to require treatment in hospital and even antidepressants."

Researchers this summer performed tests to root the existence of this condition and its effects. I'd be interested to know their findings. It doesn't take another researcher to tell me how I feel in front of art. I deeply recall a specific moment of awe: I was sitting in the Print Room at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and gazing upon Raphael's self-portrait. In all of my life, I had never seen (and likely will never again see) a more beautiful and expressive work. This is one of my "art moments" where I very likely may have swooned! How about you? I am interested in hearing from our art friends. How does art make you feel? Do you swoon in the presence of a master's work?

Side note: I find it frustrating and altogether abhorrent that Stendhal Syndrome has been said only to exist in the presence of painting or sculpture. What about other art forms? To me, there is nothing more palpable than an installation. Take a gander at Joyce Ogden's work. Exquisitely charted and expertly displayed, it's "swoon-worthy." If you've not seen it in person, she's got 53.93 on view in Louisville.


GC::VA said...

My voice always gets softer in the presence of great work and in front of what I would call "masters" I can't form words (if anyone can image me not finding words). I am curious if it has to be in front of the actual work. I have been swooned in person by Ann Hamilton and on slide by Andres Serrano. Among others
I remember having a conversation with one of my mentors (Robert Mueller) about how to judge what constitutes a good work of art. I will always treasure his answer. He said he judges how great a work is by how elaborate his plot to steal it is before he catches his imagination. He always talked about a painting of asparagus on a table that he visually measured to see if it would fit under his jacket.

art gal said...

When I visit museums or galleries, instead of reading labels or listening to audio guides or following a set path, I prefer to look around the room first. My aim is to see and then "feel" the work that grabs me. Trying not to glance at anything else, I then move toward that work, whatever it may be, and spend at least 5 minutes looking at it and trying to figure out what about it caused me to select it for my "inaugural view." Sometimes it's because of the color, sometimes it's because of the scale, sometimes it's because of the shock, sometimes it's because of the curiosity it arouses. The joy of the discovery of a work of art that seems to be speaking directly to me fills me with an emotion hard to describe but wonderful at the same time. Caravaggio is one of my favorites--if one of his paintings in the room, you will find me in front of it. Another "jaw dropping" reaction I had was my first experience of Gregory Barsamian's work--check it out at !

Earl Grey said...

"art gal" 's pick of Gregory Barsamian -- someone I'd never heard of. Check it out and look at Cake Walk.

to "GC::VA", I think that the Stendhal Syndrome comes about only in front of the work, in other words, not via slides or other simulacrum. But, that does not mean, to me, that those other experiences aren't important or expressive. I think they definitely can be.

Raine said...

The last time I swooned with a work of art was in London when I saw the cartoon made by Leonardo at the National Gallery. I have been in love with the artist and his works for as long as I can remember ever seeing them. There is just something magically about the way that man processed and recorded information.
Then again I have always responded more to unfinished, especially the sketch work, over the final product. When it comes to painting, I think that it can easily die and become only a two dimensional surface. Drawings, prints, or other methods keep alive their life for me because you can still imagine that the artist is at work, even if the work was "finished."
Leonardo for me is the ultimate thinker and unfinished art maker. I am also someone who used to own countless numbers of sketchbooks with doodles of ideas so I respond very well with the way he thinks. After seeing a sketch that I always considered beautiful in life I almost swooned. It was as though I could feel his presence still working right in front of me.

Earl Grey said...

UPDATE: NY Times has deemed the new Art of the Americas wing of the MFA Boston, which just opened this weekend, as
"swoon-worthy". See the full article here:

Ted Loos called it: "enough to induce Stendhal’s syndrome, named for the fainting spell that struck down that 19th-century French writer when exposed to a superabundance of art in Florence. The four-level wing, scheduled to open this weekend, holds more than 5,000 pieces spread over 53 galleries that take up 51,000 square feet, and spanning the centuries, with ancient American Indian art at one end and contemporary paintings at the other."