When we developed the exhibition When Art Hits the Headlines, a survey of art controversy in New Zealand, we featured an incident in which a man punched sculptures at the Auckland Art Gallery. It happened at the Epstein survey show in 1961 and – after escorting the man outside –a gallery guard was quoted as saying, “The sculpture affects? different people in different ways.”
If only we had heard of Stendhal Syndrome when we wrote the catalogue. It may sound like a Robert Ludlum novel and was indeed the title of a hyper-violent Dario Argento movie in 1996, but in fact it is a recognized syndrome for people who are weirdly affected by art. It's named after the famous French writer who personally experienced the effects and is also known as Hyperkulturemia. The symptoms present as an increase in heart-rate and disorientation when someone is exposed to art, particularly when the art is overwhelming in its beauty.
Taking into account his ranking in the beauty stakes, linking the guy boxing the ears of Epstein’s busts with Stendhal Syndrome may seem a stretch, but the French police would have no such difficulty. They are considering Stendhal Syndrome as a possible trigger for a Russian woman who threw a ceramic cup at the Mona Lisa last week. She might as well have thrown a cup at a Presidential motorcade for all the damage it did to the bullet-proof glass. The Mona Lisa has had things thrown at her before (acid and a rock). Both events happened in 1956, a vintage year for Stendhal Syndrome.
Image: Not the cup that was tossed at the Mona Lisa