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Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Stendhal Syndrome

It's been an eventful few days, and I'm not just talking about Arsenal's 6-1 walloping of Everton or the fact that I'm on holiday (Provence, since you ask, and very nice it is too.)

First two thefts from the Nicholas Roerich Museum on the Upper West Side. Then the heist of ~£40m of gems from Graff on Bond Street, which has given the media a field day with tales of Mission Impossible style latex masks, mysterious Middle Eastern buyers and the notorious Pink Panther gang. And to cap it all, news of the latest attack on the Mona Lisa by a Russian tourist armed with a ...mug.

Those of you who have read The Gilded Seal will know that La Gioconde and I have what might be called "previous". You will also know that attacking the Mona Lisa armed with a mug, even a sharpened one, is a rather pointless affair. The painting sits in a 2cm thick bullet-proof plexiglass case, a gift from the Japanese when it went on tour to Tokyo in 1974, that is designed to maintain a constant temperature of sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit and fifty-five per cent humidity to stop the wood cracking. And stop the occasional flying mug.

Of course, it's not the first time that the Mona Lisa has been attacked. In 1956 the lower part of the painting was severely damaged when a vandal threw acid on it. Then in December of the same year, a young Bolivian named Ugo Ungaza Villegas damaged the painting by throwing a rock at it. This resulted in the loss of a speck of pigment near the left elbow, which was later painted over. And in April 1974, a handicapped woman, upset by the Tokyo National Museum's policy for the disabled, sprayed red paint at it (by now safely housed in its new case) while it was on display in Japan.

Neither are these acts of violence isolated affairs. Other art works have also suffered at the hands of assorted vandals, piss artists, performance artists and nut jobs over the years. In July last year, for example, a 32-year-old woman wearing lipstick kissed a painting by American artist Cy Twombly on display in Avignon ("to make it even more beautiful"), leaving a red smudge. At the Muse d'Orsay in Paris a year earlier, five drunk men broke in and punched a hole in Claude Monet's Le Pont D'Argenteuil, while a few months before a self-proclaimed performance artist attacked Marcel Duchamp's 1917 Dadaist work “Fountain” - a urinal - with a hammer at the Pompidou Center in Paris. And famously in 1972, Lazlo Toth attacked Michelangelo's sculpture of the Pieta in St Peter's in Rome with a geologist's hammer, shouting, "I am Jesus Christ - risen from the dead", in the process breaking Mary's arm at the elbow, damaging her nose, and chipping one of her eyelids, forcing the rest of us to now have to gaze at the restored statue through a perspex box.

Which brings us back to the Mona Lisa, and why. Not why use a mug, although that is a very good question (my limited research suggests that a hammer of some description is any would-be assailant's weapon of choice, although admittedly harder to shove down your bra and smuggle past the security guards), but why did the Russian tourist attack it in the first place? Could the answer, as some papers suggested, lie in Stendhal Syndrome?

No I hadn't heard of it either. So I looked it up for you - that's the sort of guy I am. And apparently, it's a "rare condition that causes dizziness, confusion or violent acts when an individual is exposed to art". [see here for excellent article] It gets its name from the time when a young Frenchman called Marie-Henri Beyle — better known as the French novelist Stendhal — visited Florence in 1817 and found himself overwhelmed by the city's intensely rich legacy of art and history.

"I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves.' Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.''

So let me get this straight? You are so overwhelmed by a painting's beauty that you lob a mug at it? Hmmmm. Well the French police didn't buy it either, and with good reason. It turned out that she purchased the mug from the museum shop, smuggled it into Salle des Etats (where the Mona Lisa is displayed) in her handbag and then threw it out of frustration at her failure to gain French nationality - which just goes to prove quite how much of a nutter she is, if you ask me!

Maybe she should try the UK. Remember the Mona Lisa is only 77cm x 53cm and she hit it plum on from fifteen feet through a crowd. God knows we need her for our bloody cricket team.