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.


3 thoughts on “Vertigo

  1. Sorry if I am coming across like the pedantic librarian that I am, but I am fairly sure that Kundera borrowed this conception of vertigo from Sartre:

    “Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over.” (Being and Nothingness Routlege 1969 p.29)

    Who knows where Bennett was coming from, but I am tempted to think that what he was talking about was not the beauty of the painting, but something more crude, the sudden awareness that he could do something as terrible as putting his fist through a priceless work of art. It reminded me of a mysterious urge I sometimes experience (but never act upon) to shout obscenities in the middle of a play.

    I had been thinking that your use of ‘sense of depth’ fitted the phenomenology of viewing art so much better. But then I came across this description of the feeling of vertigo from Italo Calvino that seems to marry the two together:

    ‘…that every void continues in the void, every gap, even short one, opens onto another gap, every chasm empties into the infinite abyss.’ (If on a winter’s night a traveller Picador 1982 p.69).

    It came back to me again when catching the Moore at Tate Britain — it’s (quite literally) the voids and gaps that draw you in. Maybe sky-diving is something like this — except with art it’s thrill-seeking of a different order, the excitement and joy of standing on the threshold of a journey without end.

    And hopefully, we’ll never be finished with thinking about it…


    1. First off, never apologise for being a pedantic librarian. Secondly, I realised almost as soon as I posted Vertigo that I haven’t done nearly enough reading/ thinking on this and I should have. But I suppose that’s what is good about a blog. On paper there is huge pressure for thoughts to be finished, whereas blogs invite more tentative positions, with the possibility of (almost endless) revision.
      I’ve found a brilliant essay by Louis Aragon that makes the same sort of link between vertigo and infinity as your quotes, so I’ll definitely need to go back to this subject.


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