Sunday, 13 September 2015

How my solo travel to Amsterdam changed me: on contemporary art and Stendhal syndrome (2)

Have you ever heard of Stendhal syndrome? I was not even aware that such syndrome had existed until my memorable visit to Van Gogh Museum. I obviously knew that Stendhal was the famous 19th-century French author so the word and the name did ring a bell to me, but getting to know that a syndrome and psychosomatic illness is named after him really surprised me. Well, well I have another reason to never underestimate educational value of traveling!
So what exactly Stendhal Syndrome is? It is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art in a single place. 

Although there are many descriptions of people becoming dizzy and fainting while looking at Florentine art, dating from the early 19th century on, the syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini. Looking at great art, according to Magherini, can be bad for your mental health. But it was Stendhal after whom the illness was named. After visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce  in Florence and seeing Giotto's frescoes for the first time, Stendhal was overwhelmed by emotions and wrote that he "had palpitations of the heart" and "walked with the fear of falling". 

According to Magherini this psychosomatic, aesthetic reaction to the wonders of the world and beauty of art does not affect everyone the same. He claimed that after a few minutes of looking at a masterpiece, the typical tourist can put the wonders of the world in their place and flee towards comfort zones. Others have a mental immunity, "always remaining rational" despite aesthetic delights. He argued that there are those who can succumb to a complex crisis when faced with the beauty of Florence (he observed and described more than 100 similar cases among tourists and visitors in Florence). Magherini identifies these individuals as "sensitive and easily susceptible to emotions".

I am highly sensitive to beauty both in art and in nature. I often embark on quest of beauty: I travel, visit art galleries and museums. I consider myself an aesthete. As far as I can recollect I did experience certain symptoms akin to those described by Magherini on multiple occasions, especially when contemplating works of art in Louvre or The National Gallery in London. I remember feeling a bit dizzy while appreciating Botticelli's frescoes in Louvre (especially Three Graces) and my head felt as if it was not getting enough blood. In addition, I experienced increased heart rate and increased perspiration. I attributed these reactions to prolonged standing and visual stimulation however. I did not realize that I could have been experiencing Stendhal syndrome. Have you ever experienced intense psychosomatic illness while contemplating an artwork? Share your story!

If you happen to experience Stendhal Syndrome in Van Gogh Museum there is a special rescue remedy for you. You can shelter yourself in a wooden pavilion which offers treatment for this intriguing and elusive syndrome. Stendhal Syndrome Pavilion creates a space where visitors can seek retreat and solace, reflect meaningfully on the power of art and the fragility of human perception.


Being in Amsterdam on my own for five days was a rejuvenating feeling. The trip made me fall in love with myself, and it taught me lessons I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. To grow as individuals, we long to see different places and to experience new things, and solo traveling allows us to do just that. 

My solo trip made me realize that my "weaknesses" are just a part of my imagination. We all have certain things we think we are bad at. I often proclaim that I am worst at directions. I joke that I can get lost anywhere even in a box. But on my first day in Amsterdam, I walked 30 minutes throughout the entire town with only a paper map and no cell phone but with a smile plastered to my face. I took my time figuring out where I wanted to go, and when it was time to head back, I challenged myself to find my lovely, cosy hotel - Hotel Galerij. And guess what? It worked. I walked my way home from pure memory. At times, I questioned myself, but I stuck to my intuition. I arrived without anyone else’s help.

Taking a solo trip can really help you to understand who you are. Solo trip is the answer for self-discovery. And when you discover who you really are you will be free! Sounds liberating, doesn't it? If you want to transform yourself into something better, if you want to optimize your life, if you want to expand your world and stimulate your vision, you should embark on a solo journey. You will never regret it.  No matter the circumstances, you will figure out how you thrive and survive in certain situations. No matter the circumstances, you will figure out what makes you tick and bubble with excitement. The thing is, that we often censor ourselves or hesitate to do certain things because we are with other people. We often restrict ourselves, wear masks and conceal who we really are while being surrounded by people whose opinions we value. But when we are on our own, we have the freedom to do whatever we want. Who is there to judge us? 

I am pretty certain that if I hadn't gone to Amsterdam on my own, Van Gogh's unfinished painting would not have elicited such an unexpected emotional reaction from me (I would have to censor my emotions and reactions in company of my friends), I would have never visited Stedelijk Museum (I am pretty sure that none of my friends would be happy to pay 15€ in order to gaze at upturned chairs or Matisse's monumental, wall-filling cutouts). I am no art expert myself but I am highly attracted to different forms of artistic expression. I might say that Stedelijk was a bit of a novelty for me. It did open my eyes to a new world of art. When I first encountered the largest-ever retrospective of work by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) in Stedelijk I hadn't really seen much of modern art up close. My initiation into the world of abstract art took place some time ago in Tate Modern in London. But I went there with a friend whose bubbly predisposition and extroverted nature impeded severely my reception of and engagement with  contemporary artistic creations. 

So what happened in Stedelijk? Well, lots of things. Stedelijk redefined or even revolutionised my relationship with modern art. I can honestly admit that it was my first genuine interaction with abstract art in my life. I saw modern art UP CLOSE for the first time and it left a lasting impression on me. People say "Do not judge a book by its cover" and I will add: "Never judge abstract art if you haven't let it confront you yet". Understanding abstract art does not come naturally for everyone. It is the kind of art that leaves some people puzzled and makes them say: "Even I could could do that. Even my kid could do that too!". This is a kind of remark people say when they see prints or illustrations presenting examples of abstract art in books or magazines. I was equally puzzled when I browsed through a history of art coursebook many, many years ago and reached the final chapter devoted to abstract art. I remember thinking that contemporary artists sadly lacked drawing skills and a sense of beauty of the Old Masters (forgive me my ignorance my dear readers but I was an inexperienced teenager at that time). 

What I am trying to say now, is that you should not denigrate abstract art and dismiss it as some silly, meaningless scribbles and doodles unless you have experienced it and saw it UP CLOSE. I know that abstract art does not contain familiar objects, so there is not much to grasp or hold onto. This can be very confusing and even threatening.


   € 15
I am going to describe my experience of the artwork above now. Six huge canvases. White paint spread out and rubbed all over their surface. You may look at it and say that it is boring, monothematic, static, it bears no meaning. It does not have any beginning or any end. But you are looking at the tiny picture at the moment.  You can't experience the size, texture and real colour of these gigantic whitish creations. They will not speak to you through your computer screen. I stood in front of them for a while. It was very quiet in the gallery, very intimate. I gazed and gazed and after some time I started to experience all sorts of strange feelings: whiteness started to ooze and engulf me, I felt a sense of alienation combined with a feeling of emptiness and hollowness in depths of my being, then increasing fear and anxiety. Fear of what?  Was it fear of whiteness and sterility? These paintings made me think of the future world. They conjured images of futuristic sterile white laboratory in my head. Perfectly clean, with no bacteria. Hermetic and sound proofed like a capsule. Futuristic world. The unknown world. Uber-Civilized World. Uber-Technologized World. World of Science and Experimentation. And what the condition of humanity is going to be in such kind of world? Humans? Humanoids? Artificial Intelligence? How are they going to communicate? Will they feel isolated?

This seemingly nonsensical piece of art created a room for a silent dialogue with its viewer. It encouraged deep process of thinking and envisaging. And that's what abstract art is all about. It allows the spectator to decide what the artwork is about, on a very personal level. A large part of the beauty of abstract art is that we, viewers, can bring our own meaning and assign our own context to an artwork based on our associations, memories and unique emotional response. Abstract art is open to interpretation and speculation. It requires you to have an open, enquiring mind, you must confront and enter the painting and see where it takes you. This intensely personal process enriches a viewer's perspective and stimulates their imagination.

When you stand close to a painting so that you become spiritually immersed in the experience of colour different ideas and associations might suddenly and unexpectedly spring to your mind. Different colours radiate different frequencies and energies. In abstract paintings colours play vital role and invite the spectator to open their emotions to an intellectual and emotional kinship with art.  

Oscar Wilde wrote that "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all". I just thought I would borrow and change his aphorism to sum up my entry about abstract art: "There is no such thing as a well painted, or badly painted painting. Paintings either speak to your soul or not. They either stir your emotions or not. That is all". 


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