I’ve been thinking for a while about the idea of art-induced ‘vertigo’ – you might have noticed that it keeps popping up on this blog, last time in relation to Van Doesburg, in a half-remembered quote from Alan Bennett on Vermeer, which Rick Kurshen hunted down to its den in p.187 of ‘Untold Stories’ (see comments to ‘the controversial diagonal line’, below).

Bennett writes:

Miracles of light, the paintings are also miracles of space as, for instance, The Milkmaid, where the space behind the stream of milk coming from the jug is almost palpable. I have a sense of vertigo, though, in the presence of great paintings, as when standing on a cliff and feeling oneself pulled to the edge. ‘If I were to put my fist through this painting,’ I think, ‘things would be irrevocably changed and my whole life be seen as leading up to this act.’

You get the sense that Bennett has taken his definition of ‘vertigo’ from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where he points out the difference between a fear of heights and a fear of being ‘pulled to the edge.’

What is vertigo? Fear of falling? […] No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves. (‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Faber 1995 p. 56)

But this is a different kind of vertigo. It’s rather vaguely defined as being a condition associated with “anyone whose goal is ‘something higher”; more of an existential experience than a reaction to art. The reason it relates to Bennett is because they both define vertigo as an instinct towards destruction – self-destruction in Kundera, and destruction of the painting in order to cause a defining event in Bennett. It takes me back to Louis Aragon’s brilliant expression about a bridge in Paris “claiming victims even from among passers-by who had no intention of killing themselves but found themselves suddenly tempted by the abyss” ( ‘Paris Peasant’, Exact Change 1994, p. 137). In art, a similar sensation might be said to be aroused by a painting which invites the viewer to step outside of themselves, a form of momentary destruction of the self. Is vertigo, then, the feeling of being ‘tempted by the abyss’?

I’m not sure; I don’t feel a conscious, Bennett-esque destructive impulse when looking at a painting which gives me vertigo. I also don’t think it’s particularly to do with any quasi-spiritual, amorphous communion with Art, or with what Walter Benjamin would call the perceived ‘aura’ of art. Actually, in some cases, I think the cause of vertigo is quite prosaic. Above, Bennett describes the way that in ‘The Milkmaid’ the space behind the stream of milk is ‘almost palpable’. I think in some paintings what gets to me is simply the illusion of depth. I feel like I’m looking through a window, though I know that’s not right. I don’t mean this solely in connection to figurative works – one of the Van Doesburgs I really liked gave me this impression of depth as well. And an overwhelming sense of depth is, after all, what you feel when looking down from the top of any respectable height.

Van Doesburg, Composition XI

However, vertigo is also possible in a written text, as when Benjamin describes the ‘dizzy’ feeling of reading Louis Aragon (I can’t find the reference for this anywhere. If anyone can help me out, I’d be grateful.) I get this feeling reading Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’, and Aragon, for that matter. Other stuff too. Here, the cause cannot be said to be simply visual, or spatial; but I still think it relates to the idea of depth, or of the abyss. Benjamin was interested in creating a multi-dimensional text in the ‘Arcades Project’, and the sensation of reading it is that of open-endedness. Aragon has this sense too, because his novel opens up the chasms and possibilities in the everyday. So depth doesn’t have to be visual, or rather physical; it can be a psychological or intellectual depth that sparks off this sensation of vertigo in a reader, or a viewer of a painting. I still don’t think you can legislate for which paintings or books are going to have this effect, but I certainly think depth is central to it.

I wouldn’t call that a conclusion, because I don’t think I’m anywhere near finished thinking about this. But it’s a start.


This weekend is the Destinations Travel Show at Earl’s Court. I’m on so many mailing lists for various travel agencies that I ended up with four free tickets for it, so I went yesterday.

A travel show is a strange thing. First off, the word ‘show’ is completely inappropriate; there was a stage at the back with various national dances going on but that was at the margins of the event. The main experience is that of flitting from stall to stall, collecting brochures and talking to reps. The aim is reportedly to provide the opportunity for people to discover new places, broaden their holidaying horizons, etc., but I think the underlying reason is what I call ‘far-flungerie’.

In the 2006 edition of The Traveller’s Handbook Devla Murphy mentions an imaginary country, Far Flungery, a place “where nobody within 200 miles speaks a syllable of any European language” (p. 18). The country of Far Flungery represents a destination for the traveller who seeks, above all else, difference: a cultural as well as a physical distance from everyday life. However, to me, this phrase has become an occupation, which I spell ‘far-flungerie’; it’s like armchair travel, but slightly less passive. Far-flungerie is detailed planning of trips, as well as reading about other people’s travels. The internet is an enormous boon: sites like The Man In Seat 61 or Trip Advisor can soak up hours of speculative far-flungerie. Sometimes these plans are in earnest, and sometimes they are just thought-experiments: how long would it take to get from London to India by train? Can you cross the Atlantic on a tall ship? What route would I take if I drove across America? Google Maps is also fantastic for this: try zooming in on the satellite view of Samarkand or Ankhor Wat.

The most extreme form of far-flungerie I have ever come across is in my favourite trilogy, Miklos Banffy’s ‘The Writing on the Wall’. In book 3, ‘They Were Divided’, Balint Abady comes across his friend Farkas Alvinczy at home:

After more somewhat desultory talk between them Farkas finally spoke of the map that covered the table and which had been carefully attached to it by metal clips. It represented the Indian Ocean, from Aden to the Malacca Straits. When Balint asked why he was studying this map Farkas for the first time became quite animated and eloquent.

‘That is where I’m travelling at present! You see? Today my ship arrived here!’ […] He pointed to a steel pen head which had been placed on the blue coloured sea, pointing to Ceylon at the foot of the pink-coloured sub-continent of India. ‘This pen here, that is my ship. Every day I push it forward the distance travelled in the previous twenty-four hours, according to this book. The day before yesterday we left Bombay, and tomorrow we shall arrive at Colombo.’

He told how he had travelled like this for the last two years. He had ordered accounts of voyages and the corresponding maps, and each day he read just as much as was covered by that day – no more, for that would be cheating. Like this it was just as if he were making the voyage himself. If the traveller wrote that he had spent five days at sea with nothing to relate, then Farkas waited five days before reading on or marking the map.

‘But isn’t that rather dull, making yourself wait five days?’

‘Not at all! Time goes by. Sometimes faster than you’d imagine. I think about the sea and about my travelling companions. I dress for dinner in the evenings – you always do on a luxury liner, you know.’

He told Balint he was now a much-travelled man. The previous year he had rounded Cape Horn, visited Terra del Fuego and indeed ‘done’ South America. He had also been to the South Pole and back. It had been beautiful and most interesting even though it had been a shorter trip that he really liked.

‘This one is very good. The weather’s lovely and so far the sea has been quite calm!’

Balint looked hard at Alvinczy wondering if he was making fun of him and was just saying all this for a joke, but it was clear he meant everything he said and took it all very seriously. […] [‘They Were Divided’ Arcadia 2003, p. 287-288]

This of course is far beyond the borders of the eccentric, but harmlessly so. A slightly more rational form of this occupation is, I imagine, taking place throughout London at the moment by people like me who, stocked up with holiday brochures, are happily studying the suggested itineries of far-flung trips, half with the intention of going in the future and half, like Farkas, with the intention of travelling right now in our minds.

The controversial diagonal line

I went to the Van Doesburg exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday. I’ve yet to go to a press view at the Tate without being terribly late, howling across the wobbly bridge in the driving rain and bursting in ten minutes into the curator’s talk, in time to hear them say “…and that’s the most important idea we are trying to get across.” By the time I arrived they were already up to Van Doesburg’s architecture so I ended up seeing the second half first.


Ordinarily I wouldn’t say this matters. I still follow the advice of my school art teacher who said you should go round an exhibition in whatever order you like, but twice: once very quickly, to give yourself an overview, and again more slowly, focusing on the things that especially grabbed you the first time around. I hate the sort of plodding from picture to picture you often get at exhibitions – especially those with bloody audioguides, which should be banned. Or at least confined to separate audioguide sessions at antisocial times of the day. But in this case a linear approach is justified, because the exhibition charts Van Doesburg’s dizzying diversity as an artist, architect, Dada poet, and organising figure in the ‘international avant garde’. You need a bit of structure, of narrative, in order to cope with the volume. It’s a very good exhibition, if a little overwhelming.

I knew next to nothing about the artist before I arrived, apart from that he and Mondrian had a tiff over the use of diagonal lines. I wasn’t really that interested: this sort of argument over visual semantics I thought to be a bit obscure. But you can’t help being enthused by Van Doesburg’s own enthusiasm, which comes over in the sheer proliferation of works. Mondrian kept to the horizontal and the vertical because he was interested in representing harmony, stasis, order; Van Doesburg was interested in representing time in painting, and movement. The diagonal line gives his work more dynamism than Mondrian’s, which, to me, comes over as being rather uptight and obsessive.

Van Doesburg



 But, for all that, there were only a handful of works which really struck me. There were a lot of interesting things to think about – the idea of an international avant garde, the links between De Stijl and Dada, the controversy of the diagonal lines – but that was all on an intellectual level. I could have got that from reading the catalogue at home. I remember Alan Bennett describing the sort of vertigo he felt standing in front of a painting by some Venetian artist whose name escapes me – that’s what I look for in a painting, but it wasn’t much there. (EDIT: By ‘some Venetian artist’ I actually mean Vermeer, who is of course not very Venetian. See comments below.)

Having said that, I did spend a long time on ones like this:

Worth belting over the bridge for, anyway.