Sunday, August 3, 2008

When Art Overwhelms

On a trip to Florence in 1817, the French novelist known as Stendhal experienced dizziness, heart palpitations, and other frightening (he thought) symptoms after viewing great architecture and works of art (including Caravaggio's Bacchus at the Uffizi, seen here). In the late 1970s, Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, after observing dozens of cases in her Florence clinic of tourists with similar symptoms (and some even more extreme), gave the condition a name: Stendhal Syndrome. She wrote a book on the subject in 1989, and the term has stuck ever since.

It's hard in some ways to have a truly emotional reaction to works of art, because the big museums at least tend to be so crowded and noisy. How can you engage meaningfully with something when some oblivious bozo with an audioguide or a camera-phone is edging you out of the way? But it can happen, and it sure has happened to me. I can think of three particularly notable occasions when I was "overwhelmed" beyond just an adrenaline rush --
a) My first visit to the Louvre in 1996, when I saw the Victory of Samothrace, the only artwork that has ever made me actually cry (little tears, not a big boohoo). Had to sit down. Revived self with coffee and pastry in museum cafe.
b) My first visit to the Van Gogh Museum last year (surprise). Talk about sensory overload, walking up the stairs to the main floor and seeing in one sweep Sunflowers, Bedroom at Arles, The Yellow House, etc, etc, etc. Familiar as those pictures were from books, they still knocked me over in person, and it was the quantity as much as anything. Felt dizzy, had to sit down. Probably would have cried if museum were less crowded. Recovered self with tea and cake in the museum cafe.
c) A visit to the Met last summer (by no means my first), when I discovered the Greek art curators had newly created a *whole study gallery* of *every Greek vase previously in storage*. I didn't know it was there! Had never seen many of those vases before! I was the only person in the gallery, I had them all to myself! Completely caught off guard, my knees went weak, my heart pounded, I had to sit down. Recovered self later with ... you get the point. :-)

Art historian James Elkins wrote an interesting book called "Pictures and Tears," which he based on a few hundred letters he received (after a call for submissions online) from people who had strong emotional reactions in front of artworks. Not surprisingly, a few of those people mentioned van Gogh paintings as artworks that had moved them to tears. Vincent would love that: he wanted people to be moved by his work and to understand that he himself was someone who felt deeply. In my novel "The Sunflowers," there is -- of course -- a scene when the heroine, Rachel, has a Stendhal Syndrome moment, the first time she visits Vincent's studio in the yellow house. Predictable, perhaps, but grounded in something real: I rewrote the scene after going to the Van Gogh Museum, when I didn't have to imagine any more what it would feel like for her. In the VGM, I looked around me at other faces: some people were doing the "museum shuffle" from picture to picture, not seeming particularly enthused, but the others -- dazed looks, open mouths (seriously), big wide eyes. Overwhelmed.

Have *you* ever been moved by an artwork like that?


Julianne Douglas said...

I remember being hit by an overwhelming sense of awe when I walked into the room at the Musee d'Orsay where the Impressionist painting hang. Rather then being struck by one particular painting, I was floored by being in the presence of so many wonderful works at the same time. I hardly knew where to look. It is such a different experience to see a painting in person instead of in a book.

Then again, the time I most felt overwhelmed was not while viewing art, but when I visited the British museum's manuscript room. I was, like you, almost crying to be able to look at actual handwritten manuscripts written by such famous authors. My husband, on the other hand, was "ho-hum." To each his own! But I know what you're talking about. :)

Sheramy said...

The Orsay is one of my very favorite museums, precisely because of the wow factor. Unfortunately it's also sooo crowded, and it's the worst museum I've ever been to for cameraphone offenders. It's crazy: people will push through everybody up to the painting, snap a pic with cameraphone, then leave without even looking at it! It's hard to have a meaningful experience there unless you arrive right when it opens and beeline for the rooms you are most interested in, or go on the nights they are open late.

The Dutch museums nearly all ban cameras, including the VGM. I think that's a good move.

I've never been to the British Museum's manuscript room. I couldn't get myself out of Egypt/Near East/Greece/Rome. :-)