Monday, February 9, 2009

Swept Away By Beauty- The Stendhal Syndrome

The Stendhal Syndrome is a defined as a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, 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. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world.

I remember looking at a folding screen of poppies at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. At first it was simply pretty, but the longer I looked at it, the more I saw until I was in tears. The painting came alive showing the life and death of not only the poppies but also the life and death of the painter - gone these last 200 years. I was seeing what he wanted me to see as he pointed out the rain that had knocked over several plants, the physical humor of the poppy's cap balancing on top of an opening bud.

The best writing on the Stendhal Syndrome, not as pathology but as a necessary part of being fully human is Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects.

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