Bucket List Item: Ticked
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
Ever since that day my eyes were opened to the work of Vincent Van Gogh by the lecturer who visited our GCSE art class (see previous blog), I have always wanted to carry out my own pilgrimage, to walk in the footsteps of the artist in France, in an attempt to capture the essence of the places he painted, to see what he saw in some of my favorite pictures.
Vincent Van Gogh: Ward in the Hospital (left); Cafe Terrace at Night (right)
I was under no illusions: it was well over a hundred years ago that Van Gogh lived in France and I imagined things had changed somewhat...a couple of world wars, industrial and electronic revolutions, and a population explosion may have had some effect on the landscape and the buildings.
Nonetheless, it was with some excitement that I collected my suitcase from Toulouse airport in mid-May and headed towards the south-west region of France. There were hundreds of vineyards, some newly planted, some looking as old as the black hills that surrounded them. Leafy trees lined the country roads and dark cypresses reached up to the sky from the edges of the fields.
On a particularly sunny day I ventured to Arles, with the sole intention of standing in the very spot where Van Gogh painted the Cafe Terrace at Night. My reading material for the week was 'Lust for Life' by Irving Stone, the best-selling biography of the artist, first published back in 1934, and I was really getting into the 'zone' and, to a point, the mind of Van Gogh.
I was not disappointed.
A friend had recently visited the same area, also on a Van Gogh pilgrimage, so I knew roughly what to expect. Information panels had been erected on the sites of some of the artist's painting viewpoints, so at least I knew I was in the right place!
Arles is a particularly laid-back French town (that doesn't narrow it down, I know), and has an air of lightness about it. This may have been helped by the 28 degree heat and practically cloudless sky, but even so, I can understand what Vincent saw in the place and how he could have quite happily have painted various parts of it each day.
It wasn't until I finished reading Stone's book after I returned home that I discovered Vincent's time in Arles was tumultuous and that the locals back then could not accept his agitated and often highly distressing behaviour. Despite bringing his artist friend, Paul Gaugin, to live with him, the pair had frequent arguments about art in general and impressionism in particular, and Vincent ended up alone in Arles with just his mind for company. Back then, mental health was not a well-researched condition and little was known about how to deal with such sufferers. Doctors would describe Vincent as an epileptic, having 'fits' on a regular basis, and encouraging him not to paint as this seemed to exacerbate his situation.
You can't keep an artist down, though, and after a stay in the local hospital in Arles Vincent recovered enough to move to a modern mental asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. This is the period of Vincent's painting life that I admire the most (as do many others), and my current reading material is a recently published book, 'Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum', focusing on his time in the asylum. It's by Martin Bailey, who has had exclusive access to parts of the asylum since the 1980's, and is shedding new light on certain aspects of Vincent's duration here, challenging previous perceptions.
After the trip to Arles, I travelled onto Les Baux-de-Provence to experience an immersive art exhibition, fortuitously featuring Van Gogh this year (they feature a different artist or theme each year). The Carrieres de Lumieres is set inside a rather large quarried cave, with huge monolithic chunks of stone, onto which Van Gogh's paintings are projected. There are few lights inside the gallery (internally it's the height of at least two houses) so it's eerily dark as you walk into the chilly chamber.
The exhibition depicts the journey from early artist to impressionist during a half-hour performance. His work is animated, travelling across the walls, ceiling and floor, or drifting in fragments to come together as one final picture, or splitting apart and floating to the floor. Imagine all of this with the backdrop of dramatic or gentle music, depending on the imagery (Vivaldi's 'Summer', or Tom Jones' 'Please don't let me be misunderstood', for example). It really needs to be seen to be believed.
Yes, he had a tough life (you'll know more than I could ever tell you here just by reading Lust for Life), but he lived each day, absorbed by his will to create his own style, consumed by describing his perspective of the world around him, and motivated by the unerring support of his brother and the challenge of selling his work.
No spoilers here. Read it yourself!