When Vincent was in the mental asylum in St Remy, something amazing happened in Paris.
Vincent was familiar with a sense of failure in life. At this point, his relationships and life-dreams lay in tatters. And though he was painting a great deal, no one much liked what he did.
It is possible he had sold one picture to Pere Tanguy; but probably no more.
And then Albert Aurier, the flamboyant young art critic, appeared. He took a look at the work Vincent had sent from the south to his brother Theo in Paris – and gave a stunning it review.
In excited prose, he declared that in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, he had uncovered an art ‘at once entirely realistic and yet almost supernatural, of an excessive nature where everything – being and things, shadows and lights, forms and colours – rears and rises up with a raging will to howl its own essential song.’
The review went on and it was all praise. Vincent was the talk of Paris, with rumours fuelled by Gaughin, that he was the artist who had gone mad in the south, only adding to public titillation.
So, how did Vincent react in the asylum? Was this the affirmation he needed?
Initially, he brushed it off, feeling the praise exaggerated, underserved and premature. Just as vicious attack was his first move when criticised, self-deprecation was his first move when praised.
And then, as he tells us, ‘when my surprise wore off a little, I felt at times very much cheered by it.’
But mostly, and here is the tragedy, the praise created fear. He felt exposed, under threat, a fraud. ‘I ought to be like that,’ he said, ‘rather than the reality of what I actually am…as soon as I read the article, I feared I would be punished for it.’
Vincent’s fear of reckoning welled up from his childhood, when his mother had taught that fate would always have its revenge on falsity and excess; and Vincent had learned the lesson well.
As a twenty-year-old in London, he wrote, ‘After all the sunshine I enjoy, there could be rain very soon.’
Catastrophising, which is the damaged child of fear, was baked into his cake of life early.
His letters are full of dark forebodings of the price due for underserved blessings. And shortly after the review, he had a significant breakdown in the asylum.
We might have imagined praise would be the answer for Vincent; but where shame fills our being, praise means nothing and can actually make things worse.
‘Who am I to be praised?’ says shame.
While Vincent’s light shone bright in Paris, he knew only darkness in St Remy.