True to Form

Words by Inge Kvivik
Photography by Maria Natalie Skjeset


Psychiatrist Finn Skårderud on what moves us in art.

Throughout the 1980s, a total of 106 tourists ended up in the Santa Maria Nouva hospital in Florence, suffering from rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion, and hallucinations. Their corresponding symptoms aside, all of them had one more common denominator. According to psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, all of them had watched Florence’s Renaissance art.

What is it in art that moves us? How is it that two patches of red can leave one person shaken to the core, while someone else meets that same Rothko with a shrug of the shoulders? Norwegian psychiatrist and author, Finn Skårderud, has a professorship at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, as well as a private practice in Oslo. Although his method of therapy is traditional and firmly rooted in classical psychotherapeutic doctrines, his practice is noted for a holistic approach where tangible surroundings, aesthetics, and art all have a place in cultivating a landscape for sound human interaction. Emphasising the speculative nature of his attempt to shed light on the unfathomable nature of art, in looking for ways to understand what moves us, Skårderud highlights the capacity art has to express what, for many, is beyond our powers of expression.

"According to theologist Knud E. Løgstrup, one of the most important tasks for a human is to create form. That is, a form for existence; an intelligible framework with defined characteristics and boundaries to live with and within. Psychological pain is an absence of form. In an artwork, the artist has strived to give form to a significant personal experience, an experience that often includes personal pain. Take the art of Per Inge Bjørlo, an artist often dealing with deeply painful themes. He is trying to give his experience a form. I’ve had patients experiencing a personal crisis who went to a see a Bjørlo-exhibition, declaring it one of the nicest experiences they had. In this sense art can be a mirror. It can validate your own experience." 

In his 1998 book Uro, Skårderud portrays his first encounter with the Stendahl’s syndrome, or Florence syndrome, named after the city whose poignant Renaissance art reputedly caused the malaise. Skårderud pilgrimaged to Florence to see Graziella Magherini, the psychotherapist and author who had examined the tourists. 

Discussing the phenomenon, Magherini firstly highlighted the setting. One can easily imagine the anticipation in someone awaiting a glimpse of what they consider to be the building blocks of Western civilisation. But in her book, Magherini goes deeper, analysing the psychology of travel—in itself a striving for sentimentality and search for emotion. Secondly, the two psychiatrists emphasise how a work of art is able to reach beyond the viewer’s own cognisance and connect with something within you that you previously haven’t been able to process or conceptualise. 

"In artwork, content is given form. For the viewer, artwork can be the language that externally organises the psychically disturbing or obscure. Something in the artwork finally gives form to something you had no form for—until this moment," explains Skårderud.

Even though Renaissance works and their representational nature was the basis for the qualitative study into the Stendahl’s syndrome, neuroscience shows that the cerebral areas involved in emotional reactions are activated during the exposure to all types of artwork. However, EEG brain scans show that, while viewing abstract art, non-artists showed less arousal than artists. As opposed to viewing figurative art, where both artists and non-artists had comparable arousal, suggesting that abstract art requires more expertise to appreciate than does figurative art. Whatever moves you is an ephemeral concept, acknowledges Skårderud. Growing up in a rural area, he finds his own cultural taste evolving along a seemingly ceaseless continuum.

"Taste is a cultivated concept. Developing it comes from learning to see in a certain way."

The Norwegian word for art, kunst, stems from the Proto-Germanic können; to know. You can understand taste as movement, a motion towards or away from something. Whatever we like, we tend to focus on. An infant sees about 30 cm after it is born, and is genetically coded to respond to certain forms, mainly the face of its mother. Gradually, her horizon literally expands to take in the rest of the world and respond to whatever is to her liking. 

Returning to the Rothko or the Mondrian—how is it that something deemed completely meaningless in its time can resonate with an increasing number of people as time progresses? As a psychiatrist, Skårderud finds it particularly interesting to follow the evolution of the self-portrait, from the days when man was seen as a creation of God, to the birth of man as a psychological being. 

"Throughout history, self-portraits gossip about the self of the artist. For instance, in Rembrandt’s self-portraits you can see the inception of the enlightened man. He is playing with roles and stripping the human from its previous connotations, stirring controversy and disapproval from his contemporaries, but creating impressions that later generations will come to embrace. Following the self-portrait further into modernity, it becomes more and more abstract, chaotic or formless. Partly, this abstraction resonates with something in society, and partly we interpret something into it. Artists always strive to reach beyond, thus picking up on sensibilities before the rest of society. Intellectually, it is very interesting how we find this meaning. Today, we live in the welfare state, a construction very good at creating welfare, but not good at creating meaning. We struggle to find a sense of purpose and contemporary art attempts to give form to this loss of meaning."

Whether creating reassurance or stirring controversy, chances are that art, true to form, will continue to move us, forever echoing our own puzzling nature. And maybe you will find absent pieces of your own puzzle, fragments that you instantly see as true, tying you closer to your fellow beings through the maze of kinks and quirks existing within the realm of the human condition.

"It is a comforting thought that somewhere someone sits with a pen or a palette, trying to give form to an experience, struggling to figure something out. Sometimes they succeed and it pops up in a gallery or a bookstore and meets me with my own set of experiences. Instead of meeting in person, we can, in the most profound way, meet through this in-between object. And sometimes you really hit it off. That is an absolutely brilliant thing to experience.