Author Archives: Mark Holsworth

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne.

Stendhal Syndrome

My head was spinning, my heart was pounding. I was worried about hitting the stone pavers on the gallery floor if I fainted. I took a deep breath and walked slowly and carefully to the next one of the large paintings. It was my first experience with Stendhal Syndrome, but it would not be my last.

It was disorientating and confusing, but there is also the attraction of the art to consider. In this way, it was different from the pain of a panic attack where there is a powerful motivation to escape the experience.

It was in 1994 sometime between 9 September to the 3 October, and the exhibition was James Gleeson, Paintings from the Past Decade at the National Gallery of Victoria. I hadn’t planned to see it and had just wandered in. The sudden shock of this powerful aesthetic experience caused a physiological reaction.

Gleeson’s paintings had subtle references to the history of art, and I was aware that there was something that I couldn’t  place. It was like the moment just before you get a joke or recognise a face but extended into minutes.

I had no idea what was happening. Thankfully, it did not last long and was over after an hour. I would go on to have experience Stendhal Syndrome on a few other times and read other first-hand accounts of it.

Although Stendhal wrote about his experiences in 1817. Stendhal Syndrome only made medical literature when Italian psychiatrist, Graziella Magherini wrote about it in 1989. It is also referred to as Florence Syndrome and “hyperkulturemia”. Alternately it could be diagnosed as mild ecstatic epilepsy.

It wasn’t long before it made popular culture. Wm Burroughs wrote, “My ambition is to evoke Stendhal Syndrome!” He wanted to have people carried out of his art exhibition on stretchers (Painting and Guns, 1992). Later Cerise Howard showed me the 1996 Italian film Stendhal Syndrome (La Sindrome di Stendhal) by Dario Argento.

Music and dance performances have provoked powerful effects on me. These have been extremely cerebral, closer to a mystical experience, where I felt as if I was floating and had no bodily sensations. I wonder if standing and walking when viewing visual arts as opposed to sitting comfortably account for different experiences? Risk factors for Stendhal Syndrome, such as inadequate hydration and nourishment, would indicate a physiological factor.

However, first-hand accounts are the lowest form of evidence. How could I even be sure that experiences, which occur years apart, are the same? What, if any, was the medical or psychological explanation for what I had experienced? There is little medical literature on the topic, and it is clear that more research is required.

Here are some free articles for further reading (thanks to Catherine Voutier for finding these): 

Palacios-Sánchez L, Botero-Meneses JS, Pachón RP, Hernández LBP, Triana-Melo JDP, Ramírez-Rodríguez S. Stendhal syndrome: a clinical and historical overview. Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 2018;76(2):120-123. doi:10.1590/0004-282X20170189

Nicholson TR, Pariante C, McLoughlin D. Stendhal syndrome: a case of cultural overload. BMJ Case Rep. 2009;2009:bcr06.2008.0317. doi:10.1136/bcr.06.2008.0317

Arias M. Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: Ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal syndrome and autoscopic phenomena. Neurologia. 2019;34(1):55-61. doi:10.1016/j.nrl.2016.04.010


Street Art Notes June 2020

During the lockdown I was walking different paths to the popular locations for street art and graffiti. There are walls in Coburg that are well worth a second glance, to admire the elegant form and clean technique of the writer. Many of these lanes are so narrow that it hard to get a good photo of the billboard sized pieces.

I will write it again because it bares repeating. What I admire about graffiti is that young men are talking about calligraphy and colours rather than, what I all too often had to listen to in my youth — football, cars, and Hitler. This is why I think that painting walls is a good thing and if someone does an inferno of a piece; so much the better for everyone.

When I did return to look at Hosier Lane and AC/DC Lane the street art and graffiti were still there. But they were so empty. The only reason why there was anyone besides myself in Hosier Lane was that meals for the homeless were being distributed. Still, there was some evidence that artists had been active in the area. Osno is a French artist from Dunkirk who has become stranded in Australia during the pandemic lockdown. Mr Dimples and others have sprayed some stencils (see my post on Mr Dimples). Yes, the street artist are returning to Melbourne’s lanes (not that they ever really left) but not the tourists.

Did the lockdown inspire people to create much street art? (Aside from children drawing in chalk on the sidewalks.) Some feared that there would an explosion of yarn bombing from people knitting during the lockdown but I’ve yet to see any indication of that. I came across an unfinished piece by an obviously trained artist, it had a grid of pencil lines for scaling up the image.

During my walks in Coburg I’ve photographed many street signs that have witty messages written in grease pencil on them. I’ve been informed that they are across the northern inner suburbs and from comparing the handwriting it appears to be the same person.


Statue Wars 2020

The statues are falling so fast. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement statues to racists, slavers and corrupt cops have been removed around the world. It reminds me of the end of the Soviet Union. Statues are being painted, vandalised, removed or pulled down around the world. In the USA it is Christopher Columbus and Confederate generals, in Belgium Leopold II, in England Edward Colston… the list goes on.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

However, in Australia, no statue has been removed. Not that there aren’t plenty of memorials to racist colonials around. In October 1991 Gary Foley and Robbie Thorpe put the statue of John Batman in Melbourne on trial (developers have since removed that statue so the area could be redeveloped). In 2017 I wrote about the Statue Wars, in 2019 I wrote about the campaign to remove the statue of William Wentworth from Sydney University. Still, I never expected that there would be so much interest in public sculpture.

Public art has always been part of a culture war. So it is not surprising that public art continues to be a cultural battlefield. Before the twentieth century, the purpose of public art was to support the authorities. Defacement was an official practice in the Roman Empire before it came into common, popular use, faces were officially removed from monuments when they fell out of Imperial favour.

I’m reminded of the destruction of the Vendôme column, a monument to Napoleon, that was pulled down in 1871 during the Paris Commune. And that the French Realist artist, Gustave Courbet maintained, in his defence, that he had only called for it to be dismantled and displayed for educational value.

The statue wars have been going on in Australia for a long time, a symbolic battlefield for displaying Australia’s cultural divides. And conservatives are not above vandalising and removing statues and other public sculptures. In the 1980s, people saw the internationalism abstract public art as a cultural battlefield. Consider the year-long controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault which was known at the time by the racist phrase: “the Yellow Peril”. And there are also Australia’s most vandalised sculptures: Yagan and Liz and Phil by the Lake

Now the cultural battle has switched to the removal of figurative public art representing and glorifying colonialism and other racism. A change in attitude towards public monuments is sweeping the world. A change of symbols of the collective consciousness is an indication of a shift in consciousness. The fall of statues is both a symbolic and real change in the way that public space is seen.

It raises many questions for me. Why should the public space be some triumphal version of colonial history excused with the dubious claim that it is educational? Why do past generations get to dictate what the future will look like by erecting statues? And when will Australia start to change? Is conservative Australia is too powerful, and too deeply in denial, to allow even a symbolic gesture?


Prahran Square

In order to avoid the threat of democracy no city in Victoria was designed with a square. Now that democracy is no longer a threat squares are being retrofitted into city plans. I’ve visited two new squares in Melbourne: Prahran Square and the smaller Maddern Square in Footscray. Both are multifunction spaces made from converting carparks.

Prahran Square

Prahran Square is on the site of the old Cato Street car park in Prahran with the carpark now beneath the site. It is a very large space like a amphitheatre with steep sides. Facing in on itself it ignores the borrowed scenery of the old buildings around it. The central elements of the square are all created by the architects. Taken from the same set generic contemporary elements that architects around the world currently use, including the fountain with jets of water flush with the pavement. The green playground equipment is more central and sculptural than any of the actual sculpture.

Indigenous artist Fiona Foley’s work, murnalong, is literally on the periphery of the square. ‘Murnalong’ means ‘bee’ in the local Boon Wurrung language, a subtle reference to the location. Attractive as these cast aluminum bees are, they fail to identify the place; firstly because they can hardly be seen and secondly because there already is a building in Melbourne with several large gold bees on it – Richard Stringer’s Queen Bee on the Eureka Tower. So that identifying the place in conversation; “You know the place with the bees?” could be confusing.

Jamie North, Ringform 1 and 2, 2019

Not much of the arts budget was spent on Jamie North Ringform 1 and 2. There is minimalism and then there is North’s basic forms; a couple of zeroes scores well for being garden sculpture.

The only public art that is allowed to work in the square are The Pipes 2019, a site-specific visual and audio installation co-designed by light artist Bruce Ramus and sound designer Material Thinking, because they were designed in collaboration with Lyons Architects. The visual and audio can be seen and heard almost everywhere in the square.

When I visited, none of the shops were occupied and there was also two temporary black wooden cubes with street art painted on them; the standard city council move to use street art as an urban social-aesthetic solution.

The Foley’s bees is the only part of the square that refers remotely to the location. Otherwise, it could almost anywhere in the world and I expect to see it or its underground carpark in a movie that is not set in Prahran. There is much about Prahran Square that is forced, contrived and strained; it was controversial and the two year build doing nothing to assist local traders. The arts do not account for a single percent of the $64 million budget.

Maddern Square, Footscray

Contrast this to Maddern Square in Footscray in Melbourne’s west. It is smaller in many ways, less money was spent on the space and the public art is all aerosol. It has a drinking fountain, shady trees, seating and a shipping container being the only facilities that the square needs. The architectural elements in the square are the same set of contemporary elements that are used everywhere but at least you know where you are because it uses the backs of buildings: “Keep Footscray Crazy”.

Thanks to William and Matt for showing me these squares.


The Burns Memorial

“Notices paint the way to the “Banks of Coon” and to the Auld Brig, upon which a man in a bowler-hat stood with his camera ready. He offered to take my photograph with the Burns memorial as background. I said the honour was too great for a normal man, and begged to be excused.”

j b morton (beachcomber), “a lowland jaunt”
George Anderson Lawson, Robert Burns Memorial, Treasury Gardens

There are probably more memorials to Robert Burns in the Anglophone world than any other person except for maybe Queen Victoria. You can find a Burns memorial almost everywhere some Scots have lived; so if you live in Scotland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland or the USA there is likely to be one nearby. (For an incomplete list of the Burns Memorial nearest you see Wikipedia.)

Melbourne’s own Burn’s Memorial was erected on 23 January 1904. The memorial’s original location on the west side of St Kilda Road and it was moved to its current site in the Treasury gardens in 1970.

It is an edition of the Robert Burns Memorial in Ayr in Scotland by the Scottish-born, Liverpool-based, sculptor George Anderson Lawson in 1892. It is the same sculpture as in Montreal, Halifax (Canada), Vancouver, Winnipeg and Detroit, only the plinths which were manufactured by local stonemasons are different.

These statues were purchased with funds raised by the local Caledonian society. Every Caledonian society in the world appears to have been raising money for a Burns memorial at some stage in their existence. Melbourne’s cost £1000 (the equivalent of about $158,000 worth today x 60+ for all the Burns Memorials in the world).

On the frontside of Melbourne’s Burns memorial, “BURNS” is spelt out in bronze letter. (This summer as bushfires raged some Melbourne half-wit sprayed “Australia” above “Burns”.) On the other sides there are bronze panels depict scenes from his poems: Tam O’Shanter (1790), To a mountain daisy (1786), and The cotter’s Friday night (1785). This follows the traditional form of a memorial statue where moments in the life of the hero are depicted.

For me the memorials raises many questions. What is the point of a literary memorial and why do people believe that there was a need to represent heroes in sculptural form? Did the Caledonian societies get value for money buying all those Burns memorials? And, surely a writer’s best memorial is their words and not their physiognomy? But then who now remembers any of Burns words apart from a few lines of Auld Lang Syne?

I wasn’t able to photograph all sides of the plinth because there was a tradesman was eating his lunch. I have often seen people sitting at the base of the Melbourne Burns memorial, it is mostly used as a bench now. I asked the man if I could take his photograph with the Burns memorial as the background and but he politely refused.


Melbourne May 2020

Usually I would have gone look at some art galleries but instead I stayed at home for another week. With all of Melbourne’s art galleries closed or only open by appointment or holding online exhibitions I feel that many of my subject matter for blog posts has gone. And there are only so many stories that I can write about local public sculpture, graffiti, street art, and walks around Coburg that I haven’t already written. However, I am not about to complain as I am well aware that the flaneur is in a privileged position.

Nick Miller, the Arts Editor for The Age, asked on the Victorian government “when libraries museums and galleries might open?” Their response: ‘We will have more to say about the further cautious easing of restrictions in due course.’

Various publicist’s emails tell a different story; some art galleries will be resuming their exhibition programmes in early to mid July. Boroondara’s Town Hall Gallery will re-open 11 July, Off the Kerb will re-open on the 4th and Mars Gallery is open now. Getting to them by public transport will be another issue.

I don’t often write posts under my category of blogging; generally at the end of the year or other milestones. I thought that I might have to write a few more of them during this lockdown along with some more book reviews or ‘listicals’, like: 10 artists you don’t need to know about. I didn’t imagine that I would be able to keep writing blog posts 10 weeks into Melbourne’s lockdown. How long I can keep writing these blog posts doing this is another question but when I can’t I’ll take a short break.

I have tried to research an article about Marcel Duchamp and Spanish Flu but it did pan out. You might think that having lived through it that he might have made some mention of it in his letters. All I found a letter from Buenos Aires, 10th January 1919 to Louise Arensberg: “Je suis vraiment navré de la mort de Schamberg et je me demande d’où vient cette vague de mort. Appollinaire, j’ai appris de France, est mort de la grippe il y a quelques mois déja.”C’est désolant.” (I am really upset about the death of Schamberg and wonder where this wave of death is coming from. Apollinaire, I heard from France, died of the flu several months ago now. It’s so distressing.) And three days later describing himself as “your immune baby” in English in a letter to Ettie Stettheimer. (Affectionately, Marcel – the selected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, edited by Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, Ludion Press, 2000 p.74 & 77, see my book review.)

In non-COVID lockdown related news, notable Melbourne street artist Lushsux has been hospitalised after being bashed. I am sending him some of my thoughts and all of my prayers.


Janet Beckhouse (1955-2020)

Saddened to learn that Janet Beckhouse died suddenly and unexpectedly this week. Beckhouse sculpted rich neo-Baroque worlds packed with lush foliage, snakes, skulls and goddesses. Intricate and dynamic worlds in transition, moving between the natural and the supernatural, the mythologic and the psychologic.

Christopher Köller, Trust (Janet Beckhouse), 2008

Memories of visiting her studio and seeing her intricate ceramic work come flooding back. Her ceramics are in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Australia, Hamilton Art Gallery, Shepparton Art Museum, Bendigo Art Gallery and Victorian College of The Arts but I saw them most often at Craft Victoria.

I didn’t know her well, I just met her a couple of times because William Eicholtz shared a studio with her. Remember visiting the studio and watching in terror as her little black tom cat showed off by jumping through the handle of one of her delicate pieces.

“Nothing of her that doth fade. But doth suffer a sea-change. Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring her knell.”

(Riffing on Shakespeare’s Tempest Act i. Sc. 2)
Janet Beckhouse, Ganesha, 2014

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