"Stendhal syndrome" is a psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects, artworks, or phenomena of great beauty and antiquity. Wikipedia
It might have been a mistake, perhaps he should have just stayed at the hotel. But this trip had been planned for years now as a sort of pilgrimage, this was the day he had set aside to pay his respects, and he decided to push on. He did not know when he would be back in Madrid, and he didn't want to miss this chance to finally see the great masterpiece, Picasso's Guernica, the timeless and towering Colossus of modern art, and he would not let the bad news he'd just received derail this moment.
He allowed himself a late breakfast at a simple but lovely restaurant in the alley behind the hotel, and had planned to be at the museum by eleven. He stopped back at his room to use the bathroom, and saw the flashing red light on the phone. When he dialed for his messages, he heard a familiar voice from back in the States. "Hello, it's your brother. Mom passed away last night. We thought she was in remission, the treatments all seemed to be working and she was improving, but she collapsed in the apartment and was dead before she hit the floor. Lung cancer, heart attack, the vapors, whatever the fuck! The doctors are all insensitive imbeciles. I know you're traveling tomorrow, or the next day, I forget, so we'll wait for you to get back to New York before we have the memorial service. Dad's a mess. I'm a mess. Call me." Click.
He called his brother but got voice mail. "Got your message. Returning tomorrow. I'll come straight to your office from the airport, probably mid-afternoon."
He was in a fog as he walked to the museum. It seemed fitting that he would finally see Guernica, the painting he knew of and knew about since he was a child, because his mother had a beautifully framed print of it that she hung in the living room of every house they'd lived in. He knew the story, told again and again by his mother, the bombs dropped on a defenseless Basque town, Picasso creating the painting in a frenzied few weeks after the event, the artist's refusal to display the painting in Spain while Franco was in power, and its triumphant return to the Museo Reina Sofia for the world to see in its rightful place.
As he wandered aimlessly through the lower galleries, he had the sensation of a hot fire radiating from the museum's impressive collection of Cubists and Surrealists. What was it about Spanish culture, he wondered, that rendered the real world inadequate to tell humanity's essential stories?
When he entered the main gallery on the third floor, he braced himself for the painting he had come to see. He walked to the centre of the room and faced it directly, and was immediately overwhelmed. Bigger by far than he expected, almost impossible to take in all at once, it was simultaneously an achievement of breathtaking creative imagination, a searing depiction of the pain and anguish of war and the unassailable apex of anti-war art, the standard of intention and impact against which all art of significance would henceforth be measured, a new language of indelible imagery, a blast furnace of emotional power. He was transported. He was devastated. He looked down at his feet and sobbed. He looked up again, and heard the painting scream. He grew weak and light-headed, then fainted, hitting the floor with a crash.
Alan Brickman is a writer of short fiction. Raised in New York, educated in Massachusetts, he now lives in New Orleans with his 16-year old border collie Jasper, and can't imagine living anywhere else. Alan's fiction is soon to appear in Literary Heist (Ottawa, ONT, December 2021) and the Evening Street Press (Sacramento, CA, spring/summer 2022).
The Ekphrastic Review
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