Tag Archives: Stendhal syndrome

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


Power & Photography

I don’t want to go over more of the same arguments about the Bill Henson controversy but to consider the photographs and the power of the image.

Part of the problem with recent censorship of the visual arts appears to be an ignorance of photography as art. If they had been more traditional arts, painting or sculpture, then the cavemen in the police force would have understood that it was art. But photographs make particularly powerful images. Many of the police and politicians involved have only encountered photography in family snaps, media photography and pornography. Ordinary photographs do not cause anything near the powerful experience of a Bill Henson photograph; the average viewer has little or no experience of art and so is unprepared for the powerful experience of viewing art.

At the extreme end of the power of images is the psychosomatic illness, Stendhal syndrome caused by powerful art. I have had Stendhal syndrome: when I first saw the paintings of James Gleeson I thought that I was about to faint. The minor effects of Stendhal syndrome, include rapid heartbeat, dizziness and confusion. Stendhal syndrome could have impaired the judgement of NSW Police officers and other people involved in the case.

Another confusion appears to be occurring in understanding the artifice of art. Ordinarily a photograph is treated as evidence except in the case of art. In cinemas and art galleries we regularly see apparent evidence of crimes and nobody does anything because they understand that it is not real, that it art. To charge Bill Henson with obscenity makes as much sense as to charge an actor with a crime seen in a movie.

David Hockney writes about “The power of pictures” in The Guardian 4/4/08. Pointing out the history of power of images and attempts by church and state to control this power. Hockney argues who ever controls the image has power. And the better the image the more power it is able to exert. We should not forget that the Bill Henson controversy started when of an anti-paedophile campaigner used Bill Henson’s photographs to gain publicity for her cause. That is she used the power of art to give power to her cause. And the power struggle continues with artists trying to keep control of their images, media exploiting public interest in images and politicians trying to maintain an image. The ABC joined the debate in changed the scheduled program to rebroadcasting a documentary on Bill Henson on Tuesday the 27th. Finally prominent Australians involved in the arts wrote an Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson.

Images have power, they can convict, they can distort, they can even cause Stendhal syndrome. And in this controversy, and many others like it, people are fighting for control of the power of photographic images.

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