Tag Archives: Art History

Stendhal Syndrome

caravaggio

Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus,” painted for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, 1601

When Stendhal, the 19th century French author, visited Florence in 1817 he became so overwhelmed by the city’s glorious art that, overcome by a surfeit of visual splendor, he had a temporary psychological breakdown. He’s not the only one to react to extreme beauty in this way. Art lovers have found being in the presence of tremendous beauty so moving and emotionally taxing that they’ve suffered confusion, tachycardia, dizziness and hallucinations in art museums frequently enough for psychiatrists to give a name to this cluster of responses: Stendhal Syndrome.

Tourists occasionally experience breakdowns while overcome by the beauty of Botticelli‘s paintings in the Galleria degli Uffizi or at the foot of Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Some are sent to Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital‘s psychiatric ward for evaluation. The syndrome was named in 1979 after an Italian psychiatrist observed more than 100 cases among tourists in Florence. Apparently American tourists are not known to suffer the syndrome as Europeans do; some say that perhaps this is because as a culture, we don’t experience the same immersion and attachment to masterworks of art as Europeans. As a rule, Europeans believe we derive neither the ecstatic joy in being surrounded by profoundly beautiful and important masterworks, nor the psychological trauma of being overwhelmed by it. When they find an American who is deeply touched by their heritage and art, most Europeans are surprised and delighted. I have found that many will go out of their way to help a visitor enjoy immersion in their glory.

Most U.S. tourists visiting Europe simply lack the frame of reference and familiarity with European art and history that Europeans have, and without such a frame of reference there is less build up of anticipation or depth of understanding, and these are the underpinnings of emotional reaction. Faced with the exhaustion of travel, the unforgiving pace and the breadth of new experiences that most packaged tours provide to Americans overseas, the majority of my compatriots can be forgiven for being too numbed and overwhelmed by the fatigue and novelty of European tourism for great meaning to sink in. It’s not that emotional reactions to beauty and meaning are lacking in our makeup, but that most of us have simply not been exposed to either the depth or breadth of art historical experience and understanding that many Europeans enjoy. This is, of course, partly because of our physical distance from the majority of masterpieces of Western art, and also because of the relative novelty of our national history and treasures.

While the U.S. has many European masterworks in museums, one must make an effort to visit them. We are not surrounded with them as most urban Europeans are. Turn a corner in any major European metropolis and you may find that treasure troves of art and architecture await you. In Italy especially, the sheer volume of exquisite historically and artistically important works is staggering. In Rome or Florence, it seems as if nearly any random block offers a world-class repository of culture to rival anything Americans could muster. One city after another (not to mention little villages and gorgeous hill towns) boasts ancient treasures, Roman monuments, priceless works of every kind. So it is no wonder that people steeped in stories and photos of such masterworks who enjoy and remember their history should be overwhelmed when immersed in the glories of Europe’s cultural centers.

I have never had a nervous breakdown in a museum (or anywhere else, for that matter), but I have several times been moved to tears and wonderment before a work of art which I have studied and loved from afar. Here is my favorite example.

When I was 21, my mother and I spent several hectic weeks traveling through the art centers of Italy together in honor of my having completed college. For both my senior theses (I wrote one for my history major and my art history minor) I wrote on art historical subjects. One essay was on 15th century Florentine architecture; the other compared the impact of different sources of patronage (e.g., Italian popes, Spanish monarchs, Flemish churches, Dutch merchants) on the styles and subject matter found in works painted or sculpted by major 17th century Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish artists.

I took night school classes in Italian, since Mills College didn’t offer that language, to enrich my art historical studies. When I went to Italy with my mother two months after graduation, all my art historical research and Italian language studies were still fresh in my head, and I was aching to see all the pieces whose photographic representations I’d spent four years swooning over. I had been to Italy on multi-country package tours of Europe in my teens, but this time we were focusing on one country alone and spending days on end in magical cities where we had enough time to seek out the tinier churches that tours usually missed. We were women on a mission.

My mother was as crazy for 16th and 17th century art and architecture as I, and as determined to cram as many masterpieces into our free days as I was. On one swelteringly humid July day in Rome, she and I visited so many churches we lost count. We crisscrossed the city on swollen legs and blistered feet, determined to get one more painting in, view one more astonishing Bernini sculpture, admire another set of volutes or one more baldachin or another monument or reliquary or crumbling edifice. At last, dehydrated and aching, we dragged ourselves into Santa Maria del Popolo in search of a painting neither of us wanted to leave Rome without seeing: Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus.

We hobbled all around the church looking for the chapel we sought, so overwhelmed by pain and fatigue that we had to poke each other to make sure we admired and appreciated the other masterworks all around us. Then we walked around a corner and into the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo only to find St. Paul lying on the road to Damascus before us. The painting was darkened by time, covered in dust and obscured around the edges by layers of cobwebs. With one of the greatest paintings anyone will ever paint before us, enormous, filthy and exquisite, we simultaneously burst into tears and hugged each other in relief and delight. This painting alone was worth every blister, every step, every night of study, every set of endless marble steps we had climbed throughout the city for six long, hot days.

Finding my way to this painting distilled all I love about art into one perfect moment, just as Caravaggio distilled all that was important about Paul’s conversion into one perfect image. For Caravaggio, the moments of most pathos and meaning come when holy figures are brought down to their most elemental humanity and humility. He humbles Christ, the Virgin Mary (whom he painted as bare- and dirty-footed and swollen in death) and St. Paul in his paintings to bring their essential humanity closer to us, so we see that as we are now, so once were they. Unlike someone like Rubens, who elevates powerful human beings to lofty heights, Caravaggio brings holy personages down to the human level so we can empathize with them and love them in a more completely human and heartfelt way.

As painted by Caravaggio, Saul becomes Paul while lying in the dirty, dark road, nearly trampled by his oblivious horse. He is literally knocked off his high horse and blinded so he can be humbled enough that his soul might be exalted in times to come. My experience in making my way to the piece was similar on a small but meaningful scale; my little pilgrimage exhausted and humbled me so that in the midst of all the glories around me after days of being bombarded by the endless masterworks of Rome, I could still be touched profoundly by one old, dusty and perfect painting.

Other works of art have moved me to tears, but I think no first moment with any work of art can surpass the joy I felt in the perfection and purity of that moment with that work of art. Unlike Stendahl in the Uffizi Gallery, I did not need to fall to the floor with arms outstretched in my ecstatic moment. Paul did that for me in his eternal ecstatic moment on the wall of a dark Roman chapel.

[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Jervis McEntee and the Hudson River School

McEntee

Jervis McEntee’s “Autumn Landscape,” 1867

“I start with no new vows or resolutions but with a fervent hope that I may be diligent, truthful and able to resist temptation in whatever form and to have the courage and the will to live up to my ideal of a true life.” — Painter Jervis McEntee’s diary entry from January 1, 1883

 

Jervis McEntee was a member of the Hudson River School of American painters, a mid-19th century art movement known for romantic, poetic landscape paintings. McEntee’s works frequently feature autumnal subject matter and an earth-toned palette, which lends his work a melancholic air. “Some people call my landscapes gloomy and disagreeable,” McEntee wrote in his journal. “They say that I paint the sorrowful side of Nature, that I am attracted by the shadows more than by the sunshine. But this is a mistake. I would not reproduce a late November scene if it saddened me or seemed sad to me. In that season of the year Nature is not sad to me, but quiet, pensive, restful. She is not dying, but resting.”

 

While McEntee never had the success of some of the better-known members of the group, such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, he was a close friend and traveling companion to major Hudson River School artists. Though best known for his quiet and solitary paintings, McEntee socialized regularly with other artists. He and his wife Gertrude, a singer, welcomed many painters, writers and performers into their home. Together they encouraged the arts in America much as French salonnières of the 17th and 18th century had done.

 

Upon McEntee’s death, his mentor Frederic Church wrote to the painter’s sister, saying, “You have lost a brother and I a lifelong friend—a man pure, upright and as modest as he was gifted.” McEntee kept detailed diaries describing his interactions with artists, his travels, exhibitions and prices of paintings sold at them and his chronic economic woes. While I find his paintings evocative and moving, he is today best appreciated for his diaries, which are kept in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. They give rich and fascinating insights into the lives of 19th-century American artists.
 

Can An Algorithm Rate Artistic Creativity?

Burghers STanford

Detail from one of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais”

Wired UK and other media outlets report that computer scientists Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh from Rutgers University have developed a visual algorithm which they believe can accurately rank historical artworks according to their creativity. Elgammal and Saleh define creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They use this definition to create what has been called an art network based on paintings’ (and some sculptures’) similarity to earlier works. Their experiment evaluated a variety of elements including color, texture and type of scenes depicted. Elgammal and Saleh compiled a database of art works from the 1400s to the present and used their algorithm to draw parallels between creative works.

This study, which purports to use computer science to measure the absolute creative worth of over 62,000 original works of art, is highly subjective and filled with inherent bias despite the programmers’ efforts to tease out evaluative absolutes by setting strict criteria. They seem to have assumed that their criteria covered the most important elements of what makes a work original or creative. Sadly, the whole enterprise and is at best flawed and at worst counterproductive to an accurate appraisal and understanding of what makes great works of art great.

A primary problem with such a test is determining what works to include and by which artists. For example, one artist who fared poorly in this project’s evaluation is August Rodin, an immensely popular French sculptor who has had an extraordinary impact on sculptors who came after him. Rodin is best known by the general public for two works, “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” which are, to my mind, among his less exciting pieces. Indeed, “The Thinker” was conceived as a small part of his masterwork, “The Gates of Hell,” a monumental sculptural bronze work which depicts scenes from Dante’s Inferno, and versions of “The Thinker” appear in each of the cast bronze versions of the gates on display in museums around the world. Those who study and collect art are generally much more excited about “The Gates of Hell” and Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” which are considered his most emotionally powerful works. Each was cast in multiple versions and is  displayed in numerous locations around the globe.

“The Gates of Hell,” a  bronze gate covered in writhing bodies, and the somber collection of chained men dressed in rags that makes up “The Burghers of Calais” are, I would argue, more important to the development of 20th century sculpture than “The Thinker” or “The Kiss.” They are, however, much less well-known among those who only have a cursory interest in art. These more influential works are deeply psychological and disturbing sculptures featuring people in torment, not the placid, pleasing sculptures that those who know little of Rodin’s work may think of when they hear his name. Rodin, who lived a long, passionate and prolific life, created thousands of heads, bodies and body parts of clay and bronze and he created portrait sculptures that sometimes offended those who posed for them with their raw, unfinished, often ugly qualities. For more than a century, serious students of art have studied and copied Rodin’s work and techniques, and his more distorted and disturbing  sculptures have been among the most influential works of the last 150 years among modern artists.

If your specialty is programming and not art, you might not know to include those works among your sample. You might choose only his more generally popular works and assume that because they are more frequently copied, photographed or parodied, they are the more important pieces. And if you do that, you’ll get a skewed result, which is exactly what happened.

This study is getting a great deal of attention because of what was written about it by Daniel Culpan of Wired UK and in careless quotations of his work by other publications. Mr. Culpan is not conversant enough with art history to know basic terminology about the discipline. He did not appear to know enough about the subject to challenge some of the computer scientists’ biases and assumptions, and he apparently did not fully read even the short precis of the paper which he seems to have skimmed. He failed to mention, for example, that the artworks include not only paintings but also sculptures. The republication of and references to his article by Ars Technica and Smithsonian both repeat this error. Also, the art historical term “old masters,” which Mr. Culpan apparently erroneously believes means all important artists of the pre-20th century period, actually has a more specific meaning and commonly refers to works painted from approximately the 13th to the 18th centuries, up to about the year 1800.

Two of the artists Culpan describes as “old masters” who rated poorly in the computer assessment of their creativity actually lived and worked significantly after the “old masters” period: Ingres painted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; Rodin sculpted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are artists we consider to be part of the canon, but Ingres predates the modern era by only a few decades, and Rodin worked during what most art historians would consider to be the modern era.

Some wonder whether this study “proves” that some long-lauded artists might have been overvalued by those who lived before computer-aided evaluations were available. In the cases of Ingres and Rodin, their works (and Rodin’s in particular) are so unlike any others by their contemporaries that they are easily recognizable as having been created by those masters. I would argue that Ingres and especially Rodin were powerfully influential and that they saw things with a different eye than those who came before them. However, they worked primarily with traditional subject matter—figurative portraiture—in recognizable ways; i.e., their subjects’ body parts are generally recognizable as such and appear in the name locations as real body parts do, unlike paintings or sculptures by artists like Picasso, say, who moved eyes and limbs around on the bodies of the subjects he painted.

Sometimes Picasso painted multiple views of the same body part from different angles and incorporated them all into one portrait. Artists like Matisse distorted the colors of body parts, painting faces green or red when it suited him. Such altering of basic elements of human anatomy in one’s art could be considered more creative, and showing creativity (according to this definition) could be considered to be a better or more advanced form of art, or more impressive or important than producing images based more closely on figurative norms. Making recognizable portrait paintings of nobility, as Ingres did, could be seen as less “creative” than building most of one’s oeuvre out of stacked boxes and lines, like Mondrian, or collages, like Braque, or simplifying figures to their essential shapes and distorting them, like Munch or Picasso or Dali or Lichtenstein. But reducing creativity to such simplistic, easily measured or described metrics is unfair and damaging if it allows us to discount the importance, beauty, influence and ineffable magic found in historically earlier, more subtle or more “mainstream” works of art.

Taking these works out of their historical settings does them a disservice in determining how influential they were on the art that followed. The creators of this study tried to determine the influence of artists on those who followed them and to determine how different they were from what came before. But such differences were much more subtle during earlier centuries, and changes in style usually came about more slowly in past centuries than they did from the mid-19th century onward. Changes in art sped up throughout the 20th century, and now there are so many competing styles, media, techniques, mindsets, methodologies and concepts that one can no longer describe a prevailing artistic sensibility as being representative of the modern era. Technology and speed of communications changed artists’ ability to influence each other, and that sped up creativity, by one measure of the term. But since we modern types tend to think of “creativity” as an inherently positive term, I fear conflating the idea that something is “different” and therefore more “creative” in some ways with the idea that it is therefore better or more valuable.

In past times, the differences between two styles of art could be seen as monumentally important to earlier artists or to professional art historians, but those differences might be almost imperceptible to modern people without training and context. For example, Early Renaissance master sculptor Donatello and High Renaissance master sculptor Michelangelo each created important statues of the biblical figure David between about 1440 and 1504, and those who study art history see them as vastly different in feeling, symbolism, strength, influence and style. Someone without training, however, might very well see them as two boring, traditional nude dudes. Someone with no training at all can look at paintings by Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Andy Warhol side by side and see that each is different from the other and none is like anything seen before, and by that measure they could be seen as much more original, creative or even valuable than the works of Michelangelo. Each of those artists is hugely important and influential, but to put Magritte into the same category as Michelangelo would be ridiculous and unfair. Michelangelo’s works’ relative similarity to sculptures done by Roman artists 1500 years earlier does not make him a less creative or important or original artist for having copied and appropriated techniques from ancient works so well.

I fear any project that would use loaded terms like “creative” to rank, describe or value artists is likely to mislead those outside of the art world into believing that there are absolutes and discernible metrics that one can use to boil artworks down to their essence and take the guesswork out of determining meaning or value or rank. Such a ranking tool cannot exist because an essential element of art is that it can be valued in multiple ways, and that a work’s value is not solely the price for which it can be sold but is also derived from the meaning it has for the creator and its viewers. One can no more value a work of art than one can a human life. Yes, it can technically be done in a court of law or an auction showroom, but each of us holds a particular person or possession dearer than any court or auction house would, and we would argue that that person’s or thing’s imputed value has nothing to do with the value we sense within our head and heart. That is what makes art great and more complex in meaning than a garden hose or a box of cash. Each of us brings our own meaning to and derives our own value from a work of art in a unique way, and a computer program cannot do that for us.

According to this computerized assessment of relative creativity, Munch’s “The Scream” is on a par with Velazquez’s entire artistic output. In actuality, Munch’s dark, disturbed paintings owe much to the interior moodiness of 17th and 18th century masters like Velazquez and Goya, just as the nihilistic artists and writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries could not exist without the influence of the writers and artists who came before. To take them out of context and rank them in this raw and bloodless way feels, to me, preposterous.

Margaret Keene’s big-eyed portraits of the 1950s and 1960s were distinctive and immediately recognizable and they inspired many copies. These aspects of her work could be considered signs of great creativity according to descriptions of elements considered by this study. Keene’s works are, however, generally considered to be kitschy, shallow and lacking in artistic merit. Rodin, on the other hand, created rough, lumpy, often ugly portraits that many believed looked half-finished or hideous, but this freshness and openness to a reassessment of what constitutes a completed form had huge influence on modern sculpture. However, most people who know little about art history are only familiar with his statues “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” which are more smooth, finished and conservative in their style than most of his works and are less appropriate examples of the originality and influence of his work on artists themselves. I think his scoring so poorly on this “test” of creativity better shows the weakness of the creators’ understanding of which works of his should be evaluated and included in the test than it does the level of his creativity.

The project is interesting, and it is heartening to see people in tech fields showing an interest in the fine arts. However, the metrics the project uses to measure artistic merit are biased more toward novelty than quality, and they discount many of the key elements of artworks most prized by professional art historians and collectors. Elgammal and Saleh make so many value judgments based on personal opinion that the result is a controversial evaluative tool of very limited use.

 

Art History and Destiny Join Forces

Miller

“Manifest Destiny” by Michael Paul Miller

On the first Thursday of every month, Seattle’s Pioneer Square art galleries throw open their doors from 6 to 8 p.m. and hordes of art lovers rush in to admire (and often to buy) fresh works of art. Most galleries time their new exhibitions to open during these First Thursday Art Walks. Last night at the Linda Hodges Gallery I saw Michael Paul Miller‘s post-apocalyptic painting titled “Manifest Destiny” and was excited to recognize his inspiration right away. Take a look at Jules Bastien-Lepage‘s portrait of Joan of Arc:

Joan of Arc, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painted in 1879, it hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it has always been a favorite of mine for Joan’s pale-eyed, thousand-yard visionary’s stare  and the barely visible images of saints in full armor floating above the ground and delivering their messages from behind her in the trees.

Michael Paul Miller’s “Manifest Destiny” clearly reverses this same visionary woman and shows her having a powerful experience that we can’t fathom, but it seems her destiny has become manifest before her. She grasps at a plume of smoke that originates far behind her but miraculously also appears to extend to the spot upon which she stands, seeming to indicate that she has an ability to reach into other dimensions, perhaps the future, perhaps the past, and to literally grasp things that others cannot. The destiny the title refers to is not the land of endless opportunity that 19th century expansionists envisioned when they coined the term “manifest destiny” and used it to justify their push westward across North American, smug in their belief that they were entitled to dominion over all the land’s riches. Instead, this seer stands amid the destruction and desolation left in the wake of those who “advance” by using their technology and greed to seize and destroy rather than to build, refusing to work within existing systems or integrate into the world around them.

I admire both the painting, difficult as it is, and the clever visual quotation within in it. Just as jazz (and classical) musicians often quote other compositions in their tunes, playing a quick riff that adds to the overall complexity of the piece and provides a fun in-joke to those in the know, artists often make reference to other artists’ works both in homage and to tease new meaning out of old tropes. It is this sort of technical skill and richness of symbolism that makes a study of art history so profoundly moving and rewarding.

My understanding of the history of art has enriched my life daily since I studied history and art history at Mills College decades ago. That is why I become upset when I hear people being so quick to dismiss art history degrees and castigate those of us who believe in the power and importance of exploring and understanding the creation of visual art. Even President Obama derided the attainment of an art history degree in a speech recently, joining in with many who seem to believe that any non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or business-related major which does not lead directly to a $100,000+ annual salary in a technical field is  inferior and unnecessary to our culture and economy. Some colleges are even considering dropping their art history classes because students feel that anything that doesn’t lead to a likely increase in their earning potential does not seem important. (And who can blame them when a private undergraduate college education can cost $60,000 per year, and most students need to find remunerative jobs ASAP upon graduation to pay back their crushing student loans?)

The facts that such artistic studies enrich their hearts and souls, help them to better understand other times and cultures and allow them to make connections among disparate subjects and styles mean nothing to arts denigrators, even though studies show that people with a well-rounded liberal arts education not only benefit from their STEM studies but also benefit from their studies of the arts, since those studies make them better writers, researchers and synthesizers of information, all of which are skills in great demand in more technical fields. Many articles on this topic are popping up in popular media recently, including this one from the Washington Post.

How shortsighted and indeed stupid it is to assume that arts are mere fillers meant only for bourgeois, time-wasting rich people! The same people who disdain art historians often pay thousands of dollars per year to buy video game consoles and new games to play on them, and they download films and go to action movies that they enjoy specifically because the visuals are arresting and meaningful. They spend hours online each week looking at animal videos or comedy sketches, hungry for quick impulses of emotion that come from enjoying endearing visuals that provide instant sensory gratification. Because visuals matter. The arts in general matter deeply to people even if they don’t always recognize this. People listen to three-minute long songs at work or in the car or while running because they know that the power of acoustic arts gives them a rush, inspires a feeling, changes their attitudes and makes them feel more connected to the world or to their feelings. These are all arts created by sensitive people who believe in the importance of following their aesthetic dreams whether or not that leads to monetary riches, and we are all better for it.

If you are tempted to denigrate artists or those who seek to better understand them (such as teachers of poetry or professors of ancient Indian statuary),  remember that all of these arts and the appreciation of them are signs of mental and emotional advancement. They are the signs of a sophisticated civilization. They are the underpinnings of new thought, forms of expression and connections between people, times and cultures. These arts are what ancient civilizations (and the founders of the United States, incidentally) saw as signs of a great society. These are the fields of study that they believed proved that their cultures were truly great and not just concerned with how to put food on the table but also with how to see, feel and think with greater precision and insight. A world without art is one I would not want to live in, and a culture that does not honor its artists is at risk of losing its soul.