Stendhal Syndrome 2011

Performance lecture

One of two new performance videos that I worked on during the winter of 2010-2011 in the UK and as artist in residence at KINO KINO Senter for Kunst og Film in Norway. They are very different from each other, and from ‘Magickal Realism’ or ‘Nowhere Plains’. Both Stendhal Syndrome and Abyssinian Gold [Vexations, After Horace De Vere Cole] were shot and edited in HD using the studio, facilities and equipment at KINO KINO. This performance lecture both discusses and simulates the psychiatric/psychosomatic condition in which people are mentally and physically overwhelmed by looking at art. Only representational art causes Stendhal Syndrome: abstract, conceptual, installation and other forms of contemporary art have never been known to do so. The Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican are all prime sites for Stendhal Syndrome. Traditional art is doing something to our minds that contemporary art is apparently unable to do.


Stendhal Syndrome
Stendhal Syndrome

The syndrome gets its name from the 1989 book by Italian psychologist Graziella Magherini, ‘La sindrome di Stendhal’, in which she described the overwhelming emotional disturbances, paranoia and hallucinations experienced by foreign visitors to Florence in reaction to its abundance of Renaissance art. As explained briefly in my film, Magherini in turn took her title from the experiences of psychological distress and physical collapse described by the French novelist Stendhal in his memoir ‘Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio’. In this book he describes finding himself on the point of collapse and mental breakdown as a result of Florence’s churches and their religious art. Apart from Santa Croce’s Cappella Niccolini with frescoes by Giotto (Stendhal’s nemesis in 1817), other prime Florentine sites for art attacks include: The Accademia (home to Michelangelo’s David), rooms at the Uffixi containing Botticelli’s Primavera and Piero Della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino, San Lorenzo’s Sagrestia Nuova with Michelangelo’s sculptures of the Four Seasons, the Quartiere Planetario hall of the Palazzo Pitti’s Galleria Palatina, and Luca Giordano’s hall in the Palazzo Medici Ricciardi.


Magherini‘s book only seems to be available in Italian, but the Wikipedia gloss on it is quite cogent: “During the mirroring between art and subject, a sublime, aesthetic and uncanny event occurs. The art experience hooks a repressed trauma beneath the conscious sea of the subject, rapidly pulling the trauma to the surface. The subject acts much like a distressed fish out of water. Dr. Magherini‘s job was to unhook the patient from this episode while under observation and gently place the patient back into the society.”

PS: There is also a related history of critics and the authorities actively claiming that certain art works would drive viewers to extreme shock, madness or moral ruin. The Impressionists are now generally regarded as uncontroversial and the epitome of inoffensive good taste to the point where their works appear on all manner of bourgeois merchandise and people flock in their thousands to any exhibition of their work. Although it seems absurd now, between the 1860s and the 1880s, Impressionist painters were accused of being blind (which also implied that they were masturbators), of making paintings so wrong that pregnant women shouldn’t look at them for fear of damaging their unborn children, and even on one occasion of driving a man insane so that he ran out into the street to bite pedestrians.

Most individuals of illiberal instincts or politics and all totalitarian regimes harbour an extreme fear of the power that art and artists have to move, persuade or unite people; the most obvious examples being Nazi Germany’s concept of Degenerate Art, the Vatican’s relationships with unruly artists and thinkers over the course of many centuries, and the strict adherence to heroic, propagandist realism in the Communist bloc during the Cold War era.

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