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Sunday, January 23, 2011

From Weird to Insane

All artists work under the burden of being thought "just a little bit weird."  Some of us even enjoy it. For some of us it is a license to pursue the "road less traveled" as Robert Frost termed it, without looking in the rear-view mirror to see who's following, nor caring who's staring at us with their head cocked in dismay. Of course those artists who aspire to greatness often pass beyond the "little bit weird" to "downright weird." And some go beyond that to become certifiably eccentric. Now, beyond that, things get a bit "iffy." The term "crazy madman" comes to mind. To make matters worse, there is but a very fine line between each distinction and the tendency on the part of some artists is to traverse across these lines without realizing it. Despite the best efforts on his own part and those around him, that was the distressing, and ultimately self-destructive path Vincent Van Gogh could not avoid following.

Self-portrait Without a Beard,
September, 1889, probably
Van Gog's final self-portrait

All his adult live Vincent had been a troubled soul. He was misunderstood, unloved by all but his brother, Theo. He was pretty much a dismal failure at all he tried. Even when he found painting and the satisfaction of creating beauty, he found little or no appreciation of his efforts and no financial success whatsoever. He sought a professional and personal relationship with Paul Gauguin that ended in his attacking his only friend with a straight razor.  And with Gauguin's hasty departure from Arles after Vincent's much-touted self-maiming, came the realization that professional help was needed. Vincent, with his brother's financial backing, voluntarily committed himself to the St.-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near Saint-Remy.
At Eternity's Gate, 1890, Van Gogh,
painted while at St. Remy,
a portrait of depression and dispair.

As asylums go, the institution at Saint-Remy was a good choice. It was one of the more humane, and pseudo-scientific retreats he could have chosen. There he came under the treatment of Dr. Rey who had the good sense to advise him not to drink.  (Vincent did a portrait of him.) Also, Dr. Theophile Peyron, the director of the hospital, was understanding of Vincent's condition, diagnosing him as epileptic, which was close, (for that era) if not entirely accurate. Vincent remarked of St. Remy, "It must be easy to treat the sick here: absolutely nothing is done for them." What was done for Vincent was more along the line of saving him from himself, allowing him to paint the people and places he knew there in relative peace, while remaining under a doctor's care.  Vincent's "condition", whatever it was, improved for a time until a second attack in which he is said to have ingested some paint. Shortly thereafter, in May of 1890, he left the hospital for Auvers and the care of Dr. Gachet. The road downhill from there was short and steep. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot on July 29, 1890.

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