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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.

Black Form (1923). Click to enlarge.

Black Form (1923)
Click to enlarge

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.


White Sound (1908)
Click to enlarge

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.

improvisation 31

Improvisation 31 (1913).
Click to enlarge.

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.


Archer (1909)


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:

Chevrolet Baby Grand

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!

Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 3   campbell panel 2   Campbell3  Campbell panel 4


A cool scalpel, slice-thin, and so clean,
Hands sanitized, gloves two seconds away,
Mask in place, breath dew already forming on my upper lip.

Separating past from now from future,
No place for dreams, or wishes,
A basin ready to receive them, cut away, refuse.

Why are we not allowed ornamentation?
Why this minimalist line?
What harm fantasy, a moment’s dream?

Don’t tell me I don’t know reality.
I know reality, it is the dreams,
Real as vapor, hard as crystal,
Or sometimes onyx. I hold onto my illusions,
And flee naked, gown flapping, from the OR,
Down the hall, screaming.

As my surgeon smiles, kindly even, sure surgery
Is necessary, and that I will return worse for the wear.
Best not delayed is how she sees it.

… while I curl into a cluster of small damp flowers,
Smelling the earth as dirt from which all life grows, beautiful, oblivious,
before reasoning sets in with its sister: dreaming.


KISSES: photos included

This blog is about kisses, the kind usually done in private . . . or in Paris in public. This is my third draft on this subject, and I’m going with it no matter where it goes.

2013-10-24 11.21.43 copyThe first place it is going is that kisses are better than wine. Great kisses, that is, are better than great wine. The opposite is also true, bad kisses tend towards the vinegar-esque.

The second place it is going is that great kisses may or may not be sexual but they are always sensual, just as good sex must be sensual (a personal observation) while sensuality may or may not be sexual.

The third place is it going is to confront the innate problem of writing a blog about kisses. If I only write a paean to, and attempted deconstruction of, mind-blowing kisses, . . . well, not everyone has the requisite partner(s) or relationship(s) for such kisses, and I don’t want to set people up for lamentations or a sense of missing out.

So, instead of focusing on kisses per se, which may or may not be within your reach, let’s look at the overall context of sexual vs. sensual – their differences, overlap, and nuances – because, while transmission of sexual energy usually requires two or more for full ignition, sensuality requires only one person in heightened awareness and receptivity.

No physical partner is needed for you to experience the pleasures of sensuality even while any emotion or response brought on by the creations – music, art, fashion, food, writing – of another human means in some sense that another person is present even if their body isn’t. It’s simply a factor of unaligned time and space.

couple kisses

Further: sensual enjoyment is your birthright. You came into the world equipped as a sensual being. Look at a baby’s goofy smile when a finger is lightly traced down its belly. That is sensuality, as in experiencing the senses of touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste.

Relishing, savoring, being immersed in, swooning over, salivating, feeling the back of your head zoom into space, having your knees give way, knowing there is no other color red in the world like the one you’re looking at right now, knowing no musical segue ever before was so sweet, being lost in Now and giving up your identity to Wholeness . . . yup, that’s what a great kiss feels like, but . . . oh, sorry, I wasn’t going to go there.

Sexuality might be embedded in sensuality, but sexuality urges you towards a completion, to a release. It is a grabbing and claiming, an escape from the mundane.

Sensuality gathers you in its arms and takes you into the knowing of More. It reveals the exquisiteness that a moment before had been camouflaged as mundane.

Sexuality takes you away from washing the dishes. Sensuality reminds you of the feel of china, the smell of good food, and the comfort of warm water.

At its fullest, sensuality ushers you into an ecstatic love inside and outside of yourself by going through the senses of your body and mind. Sex may have love as a component, but sensuality reveals the streaming love that has always been there, timeless without boundaries. Sensuality is the powerful play between you and beauty where you yield in order to expand beyond identity and ego instead of being a power play between people striving for dominance and control in the dynamics of sex.

Sensuality without sexuality is leagues ahead of sexuality without sensuality. They don’t occupy the same planet, even though sensuality that includes sexuality is what premier cru kisses are made of . . . oh, I wasn’t going to go there.

Well, yes, let’s actually go there. I have all these photos of people kissing in Paris I want to share.

About kisses:

Each kiss is unique even when it is a pile up of the same old same old between two people. It is always a communication, even when sometimes, sadly, it is a “kiss off.” Kisses cannot avoid communicating even though most are half-felt, half-given, half-received, and half-registered.

There are kisses we give to children and babies, the elderly, long-time friends, and pets. These kisses ask for nothing, and we give them because we feel safe enough to express our affection and tenderness. Message given, message received. Bonding has been done. Nice.

But what I am mulling over these days are kisses between people who are discovering each other, who need to figure out, confirm, or explore a sexual or highly affectionate relationship.

Here is where we need to become more fluent. We need to learn the language of kisses, the accents and dialects, the give and take, daring, shyness, boldness, yielding, claiming, and whispers louder than shouts. This language demands trust. Kisses cannot be fluent in sensuality without trust.

The kissTo be sure, sex can occur without trust, but exquisite sensuality cannot. This is why mature adults, those of us not prone to random sex, paid partners, swapping, sending Instagrams of our private parts, or seeking younger bodies to make us feel potent, want meaningful relationships based on honesty and trust. We know the difference between sexual and sensual and that sexuality without sensuality is too much like puberty. To be avoided.

Trust requires knowing we are loved and cherished, and we become instinctively less interested over time if our partner wears us down by neglect, or being a workaholic or other addict, or being unable to engage in things that have meaning to us. And why do I suddenly remember an ex-husband’s wish that we linger in the uncomfortable chairs after dinner so we could bond over his explaining international finance to me? I mean, I would have become an expert in euros and renminbi if there had been reciprocity, but . . . oops, I probably shouldn’t go there either.


Back to sensuality, because that is the prize, that is the goal, that is the birthright, that is the joy, that is the expansion that is yours. I believe the closest we can come to knowing god is through truly experiencing life through our senses; and I believe that when two or more come together in His name (i.e. in love and sensuality), there He is also.

Okay, I really stepped into it because I don’t believe in a sentient entity keeping score beyond interstellar space even though I do believe in my parking angel – and I probably should have said “goddess” anyway. That is, I believe in the tendency of energies to solve problems in harmonic ways. I believe peace wants a chance. I believe synchronicity happens every second. I believe health wants to happen. I believe there are morphic fields of knowing and evolving and sharing of our collective minds.

And I believe kissing is a master art and only those who approach it in adoration can taste its full beauty.

And I believe the potential for sensual joy surrounds us at all times. It is music, it is taste, it is birdsong, it is morning sun, it is dance, it is cascading into laughter, it is a wet rock in the sand, it is dirty dishes. It is opening our senses and being fully alive. It is where we partner, as two or more gathered, in ecstasy with Now.

THE FRENCH: porcupines or hedgehogs?

Don’t tell me the French are rude, it’s starting to make me grouchy. The French, mostly, are not porcupines, but hedgehogs curled in on themselves until they feel it’s safe to uncurl.

This leads Americans, mostly, to feel that waiters and shopkeepers are condescending, arrogant, and snooty – just the sort of the thing that rubs out-going Americans, especially those worried they don’t know the secret codes of style and élan, the wrong way.

Yes, I am exempting the occasional long term waiter who feels a Gallic duty to live up to tourists’ expectations of him, but they can usually be surprised into friendliness by a warm smile and gentle inquiry about fruit tarts.

On my recent stay, I LOOKED for rudeness, I searched for it, but I kept stumbling into warmth, and sly humor, and sensitive politely-done care. A street musician playing Bach on the flute was bashfully apologetic that the playing wasn’t perfect. (It was.) An elderly man told me in French I was “so gracious” because I’d moved over to make room for him as we passed. The list is long and graced every moment.

And once the French have checked you out and uncurl, you are cherished for a long time.
I stopped by the restaurant FISH to make reservations for dinner. When I arrived that evening, the table reserved was where I used to sit, in the window with my standard poodle Max. The chalkboard reserving it said, “KING POODLE.” If Max were still living, he would be 18 years old. He hadn’t been to Paris in seven years. Yes, he was an elegant dog who loved window shopping and art galleries, but it was seven years ago.

reservation sign

At YVELINE Antiquities, Niloufar said, “The last time you were here you looked tired, like it was a hard time. We were worried.” Well, it was a hard time, it was a disastrous time, but it also more than two years ago and I’d been in the shop then thirty minutes max.

At Juliette OZOUF, a boutique of luscious clothes in dusty pastels, Vladimir virtually danced at seeing me. Any woman would love his unbridled joy: “Oh, how long are you here? Oh, it is good to see you. How is your dog, your beautiful dog?”

So, let’s say you are going to Paris. Where are a few choice places in my old neighborhood, the 6th arrondissement, that you should visit?

More information on the above:

FISH La Boissonerie (69, rue de Seine) for a delicious, not expensive meal inside a Roman interior, with a fine selection of regional wines. Cozy ambiance, a place to make memories. My favorite neighborhood restaurant. Owned by Drew Harre, as is the wine shop “La Derniere Goutte” nearby.


Juliette OZOUF (20, rue de l’Echaude) for a focused selection of elegantly “loose,” draped clothing in knits, cottons, silks, and linens. The dusty pastels are seductive and perfect for every women looking to up her style creds. In the photo I’m wearing the silk scarf I bought the first day of my return to Paris and that I have worn every day in the five weeks since.

Juliette's shop

YVELYNE Antiquities (4, rue de Furstemberg) on Place de Furstemberg, perhaps the most photographed small court in all of Paris. The owner Anne’s exquisite selection of antique furniture, paintings, lamps, wooden artist’s models and curios is a treasure. But please don’t treat her shop only as an amusement shop for browsing. Enter with your eyes open for possibilities of what “objet” can bring joy to your life.


Also, and equally delightful:

GAGGIO (16, rue Jacob) for a stunning selection of Venetian velvet scarves (I own 8!), purses (own 3), slippers (3 pair), jewelry, jackets, vests, and pillows, and glassware. Pure luxury! Tell Pierre-Michel I sent you.


LADUREE (corner of rue Jacob and rue Bonaparte) for tea, lunch, or brunch inside the prettiest of the tea shoppes of this famous luxury macaron Mecca, with two other tea shops in Paris, plus London. Buy boxes of macarons to take home as reminders and gifts.

LadureeLaduree window

Ultimately describing the French is an elusive task, perhaps better given up from the start. What I know is they make me smile even when a tad abrupt at first, and they make me uncurl, safe to be eccentric, to dance, and be beautiful. Yes, safe to uncurl.

Merci, mes amies.

PARIS NOTES #7: It’s time to leave Paris

dog on Paris streetIt is time to leave Paris. I was ill and confined for three days, but now recovered enough to function but not play. My timing is off. My photos of dogs consist only of their tails and hind sides as they trundle or scamper away. My photos of kisses are taken after the fact. My photos of children are uninspired. (The earlier photos will soon be posted in my blog in the Photos section.)

So, I am packing, and making runs to buy books and macaroons (chocolate mainly), and children’s hats as gifts.

man in scarf at cafeLosing my edge as a photographer, I look not for the exact moment that epitomizes something but at the full array of people and faces in front of me, and discover that men are looking at me. Men alone, men with other men, men with women. It may be the wan ethereal paleness of three days of coughing, or my younger Jeanne Moreau slightly baggy eyes. I look in mirrors and window reflection man lookingand see nothing different even as I feel different. Have I become unaggressive without the camera or vulnerable, and so tap into male care-taking energies? It’s slightly unnerving.

photo copy 6Two nights ago my friend Ruth and I went to the National Opera House (Palais Garnier) to see Ballet de l’Opera. She had gotten tickets for one of the red velvet (or were those walls carpeted?) loges that emits the smell of every longing and conquest and devastation and brilliance that ever occurred inside it or on that magnificent stage in 140 years. I saw photo copy 11modern dance that seared my eyes and brain with brilliance and passion: choreographers Saburo Teshigawara, Jiri Kylian and Trisha Brown. The color and sound, and silence, and integration of Gregorian chanters and photographs and videos enhanced that dancers were moving in ways that people cannot move, and expressing the undecipherable secrets of life and death, their bodies calligraphy. And I only had one photo copy 12coughing fit the entire time. Yeah, I was that person others wished would have stayed home under the covers.

So it was a good ending, except that it is not where I am going to end. I am going to end with this photo of a young man at the restaurant where I had lunch yesterday. Art is alive here if you combine looking with seeing.

This was the one really good photo of the day. Tell me, is he Raphaelite or Durer-esque?

Au revoir.

man with teapot

PARIS NOTES #6: Playing Chess with Yourself: empathy training

chess board indoorsThe good thing about playing chess with yourself is the two sides are evenly matched.  The bad thing is you know what the other side is thinking. It becomes an ultimate game of one-upmanship, to outthink the person who is outthinking you as you outthink them. This can go on like mirrors opposite each other where images go into infinity.

It also means you cannot ambush the other side, there are no calculated surprise attacks, and that winning is, more than usual, the result of making few, essentially no, mistakes.

It also means that every time you win, you lose; and every time you lose, you win. This is superior empathy training.

Nonetheless you do – or I do – sometimes choose sides. When black mauled white a couple games back, I found the game distasteful. A bully was on the move and not about to stop until all royalty of its so-called enemy were dead on the field. There was no finesse, only slaughter. It took me a couple days to return to the board.

And I couldn’t help but rejoice when black was clearly winning an earlier game. Check. Check. Check. Check. But when black couldn’t achieve checkmate, he confidently used a turn not to check again but to bring another piece in for the kill. In the space of one free move, the white queen zoomed the length of the board, put the black king in check, and sealed the deal on the next move with the aid of a lone white knight. For 15 minutes black had controlled everything. In 15 seconds white won the game. I knew from the beginning that the white queen was intrepid, and I liked that.

My maternal grandfather played chess 80 years ago by mail with people he didn’t know. My paternal grandfather was the checker champion of Cerro Gordo county, Iowa. It runs in the family. Conniving, pouncing, strategizing, foiling. I own up. It has nothing to do with building peace or inclusive dialogue. It’s not a win-win, but I feel the tickles in my brain, and adversaries who demand respect from each other thrill me.

And I like that the queen is so powerful while the king can hardly move and tends to cower.

I also like when an overlooked pawn steps forth to upend an entire game. “I can take you, queen.” “I can checkmate you, king.” “You didn’t see me coming, did you? Well, here I am.”

I’m not actually that good, and I play only when I’m in Paris, which may be once a year for a couple weeks. There is a chessboard set up in the apartment where I stay and that I used to own. It is a chessboard I bought, and as this apartment has a convoluted story of joy and beauty and love and grief, betrayal, and loss, so do chess games have stories. Some leave me breathless as a queen fights to hang on or a bishop risks his life or a castle frets to break from the corner.

Each piece has a personality. Call it projection, or call it observation, I don’t care:

Kings – lazy, pompous, scared

Queens – determined, capable, calculating

Bishops – graceful in their oblique ways, a little sneaky coming in from the side

Knights – awkward in their armor, wanting to be valiant, often treading too far out

Castles – like all walls and parapets, less powerful than they look

Pawns – secure in their little selves, knowing they may be sacrificed, but up for the game.

Knowing the intelligence of a chess piece and being inside the game, especially when you play against yourself, builds empathy. It is a holistic exercise that resonates with the stories of your life, and the stories of others. It gets you past that only your reality is real. It forces you to be human by having to drink from the winners’ and the losers’ cup at the same time. It makes us want to be good to others.

A game a short while back ended with both kings forced out of hiding, facing each other mid-field with no protection. They hardly knew what to do. They were two King Lear’s who believed they were all-powerful now stumbling to their ends with no one to hear their whimpering. It was a tragedy of hubris. I could not take sides in this. I could only witness, and remember the story of why the apartment was no longer mine, nor even of my own King Lear.

When you don’t have empathy, you are cut off from the rest of humanity. If you do not feel what others experience, you are alone inside your version of your story. It becomes your reality and can stale quickly. You lose the richness of life, its flavors and gifts. You’re in a fairytale with no feedback or changes of scenery. “And lived happily ever after” becomes a jail.

Empathy is epic. Furthermore, it is non-fiction.

. . .

Chess games in the Luxembourg Gardens, where timers are used, and audiences second-guess you. Perhaps here it is more a blood sport than empathy.

playing chess in Paris DSCN1264 DSCN1267 DSCN1268