STENDHAL SYNDROME or Florence syndrome: a psychosomatic disorder, a sort of attack, named after the 19th century French author Stendhal who was taken over by it on an 1817 visit to Florence. He wrote that when he visited the Basilica of Santa Croce he saw Giotto’s frescoes for the first time and went into “… a sort of ecstasy, … absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … where one encounters celestial sensations …. Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. I had palpitations of the heart. I walked with the fear of falling.” Named in 1979 by an Italian psychiatrist who observed more than 100 cases among visitors to Florence, the illness includes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion, and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to particularly beautiful art or a large amount of art in a single place, such as what would happen at the Uffizi.
Today it happened to me. At the Neue Galerie in NYC. With Vasily Kandinsky. Direct transfusion from the canvas to my sensory receptors. Lights popping. Knees weak. And why not? If not today, when?
VASILY KANDINSKY (1866-1944): first artist to formulate concepts of an art, and create art, of abstraction that would generate emotions without needing or using specific subject matter.
It’s mostly about the colors being “just there,” hanging out, having conversations with each other. “Black Form” can be dissected into about ten different sections, each a marvel of jewel tones nudging each other or shooting across one another. Then you put it all together and … become speechless.
It’s not that I suddenly discovered Kandinsky. He’s had a special file in my brain for decades. What is it about these Russians? I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov in the play “Man with a Case,” based on two Chekhov stories, at the Shakespeare Theater last week and the effect was about the same.
No, I’ve always know about Kandinsky, I’ve just never seen so many of his paintings in one place, and there are 80 separate works at the Neue Galerie at 5th Avenue and 86th Street, New York.
The mansion was completed in 1914 and lived in by industrialist William Starr Miller and later by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III before being purchased by Ronald Lauder and Serge Sabarsy in 1994 to become an art museum. The Neue is home to several famous Gustav Klimt paintings, and has a charming Viennese café specializing in savory krauts and decadent desserts. I had the Linzer Torte.
Back to Kandinsky and colors: a week ago I wrote about sensuality v. sexuality and how sensuality incorporates the entire body’s responses to touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell. His paintings enter through your sight, of course, but he was greatly influenced by his love of music, especially of Arnold Schoenberg’s compositions that broke from having a central motif and are referred to as “pantonal,” though more familiarly known as “atonal.” Also he was intrigued by the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art that combines art, music, and theater. Further, he experienced color as sound and sound as color, which had to have been a handy gift.
SYNESTHETE: one of the very rare people, including Kandinsky and other brilliant people such as Nabokov, Liszt, and Richard Feyman, who saw colors when other senses were stimulated. (For Feyman, it was his physics equations.) For Kandinsky, he saw the colors for his paintings when hearing music. Here for your viewing, and perhaps listening, pleasure is “White Sound.” While it may take a moment to absorb the first onslaught of color, once you have, it turns into something amazing.
This overlay of art forms captivated him. Perhaps because it is how he experienced the meshing of his senses, i.e. his sensual life. He compared painting to composing music, saying “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” He called this devotion to inner beauty and intensity of spirit and spiritual desire as an “inner necessity.” His book “Concerning the Spirituality in Art” was published in 1910.
In the largest exhibit room were several of Kandinsky’s most famous and beautiful works, including a personal favorite, “Improvisation 31, Sea Battle.”
I know if you look for them, you will see figures and things in his work. Particularly in “Picture with an Archer.” And that is charming and all. Some evidently refer to Russian or German villages and folktales. A bit of Chagall-esque stuff, but to me it’s irrelevant. Remember I’m in Stendhal syndrome. It’s about pure sensation, not story lines.
The abstraction is the color. You can touch and taste it. And somehow the man mastered paintings that are visually 2 – 4 feet deep. They are neither 2-dimensionally “flat” on the canvas nor give the viewer a long depth of field. It’s as though you could reach in behind the surface and rearrange the parts if you wished, but only for a couple feet of depth.
In 1914 he painted four panels for the villa of Edwin R. Campbell, co-founder of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company. At that time a Chevy looked like this:
This should give you perspective on Kandinsky’s breakthrough genius. He was doing these gliding, flying, succulent beauties, these first abstract paintings, when cars were tin buggies.
The Campbell panels are below. The exhibition is open until February 10, 2014. Stendhal syndrome, too, can be yours!