When is a window not a window?

Arti was in NYC for a week in September.

It was Friday afternoon free admission time when hundreds lined up several city blocks to get into MoMA, Museum of Modern Art. Once in there, it was like inside the Tower of Babel (not that Arti had been there), but just imagine the whole world had converged in this space, all kinds of languages were heard.

After visiting MoMA, some questions came to mind. Here are the Q & A’s. (Photos were allowed. The following were all taken using the iPhone 6)

When is a window not a window?

When it’s encased in plexiglass, with the name Marcel Duchamp placed beside it, declaring it to be an objet d’art. Dada-di, Dada-dum…

Not a window.jpg

Or, when is a spider an objet d’admiration, something larger than life?

When it evokes a Kafkaesque vision:

Giant Spider 1

Spider

And why is the arachnid a double-edged sword?

Well, the artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) saw it as a friend when it captured bothersome mosquitoes in her Connecticut country home. As well, Bourgeois also saw it as a symbol of her mother. Wait, not in looks or nature, but in the work that they do. Her mother was a tapestry restorer. Bourgeois saw sewing and spinning web to be a similar form of action.

How do you take a good photo when there are crowds everywhere? A bit similar as how to get to Carnegie Hall, patience, patience, patience. The following are the before and after effects at Monet’s Lily Ponds:

Crowds.jpg

Monet's Water Lilies 1.jpg

What’s the major excitement of the whole experience? The ecstasy of seeing some famous artworks unexpectedly, ones that Arti had never thought she’d see in real life.

Christina’s World (1948) by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). And what is the blue patch in the middle? Arti’s watermark.

Christina's World.jpg

The only Edward Hopper (1882-1967) at MoMA, Gas (1940). As an avid bird watcher, Arti of course would have loved to see Nighthawks but Gas would do, for the serendipity.

Gas

And glad to see Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906) healthy diet:

Healthy diet

Ta-da! This is probably one of the most compelling reasons for many to visit MoMA, van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889):

Starry Night

Which was the most memorable for Arti?

Jackson Pollack.jpg

One: Number 31, 1950 (1950) by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

Never thought it was so big, 8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″ (269.5 x 530.8 cm). No easy dripping.

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A few related posts on Ripple Effects:

Arles: In the Steps of van Gogh 

Inspired by Vermeer

Edward Hopper, William Safire, the Visual and the Word

Alex Colville and the Movies

Art and Cliché

A Movie to Celebrate Canada Day

Happy Canada Day to all my Canadian readers!

To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, and pay tribute to the Canadian spirit, I’d like to recommend the movie Maudie, about the folk art painter Maud Lewis (1903-1970). Born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Maud lived with her brother Charles in their family house until he sold it. In the movie, Maud overhears Charles telling their Aunt Ida he will pay her to accommodate and look after Maud in her home.

Maudie

Born with a small frame, disfigured facial features and deformed fingers, Maud suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis as an adult. Such handicaps however do not cripple Maud’s sanguine spirit and fierce independence. While staying at her Aunt’s place, she answers an ad for a housekeeper posted on the bulletin board of the local store. She jumps at the opportunity as she sees it as a way to move out of her Aunt’s and strive for her own independence.

The house that needs a housekeeper is home to Everett Lewis, a fish peddler in the village of Marshalltown, on Nova Scotia’s northwestern shore. Everett’s abode is a cramped, one-room hut with no running water or electricity. With her arthritic hands Maud cleans the floorboards and tends to Everett’s daily needs, cooking on the wood stove and bearing with Everett’s demeaning outbursts. The rule of the house is, he first, then his dogs, his chickens, and lastly, Maud.

Does Maud feel defeated? Well sure, but just temporarily. Her resilient and cheerful spirit can move even a mountain of a misanthrope. Not long after, she and Everett got married. “A pair of odd socks,” she says of their seemingly incompatible personalities. We hear it often nowadays, “diversity is strength”. The Lewis’s household is evidence to that.

And of course, there’s the economic factor.

Maud turns Everett’s dingy house into a pleasant abode. She begins to paint on every surface: the walls, windows, door, stove, washbasin with lively flowers, birds, and whatever she sees in nature. She also picks up small, discarded wood boards to paint scenery and snowscapes. Not long after, a sign “Paintings for Sale” is placed outside their tiny house to diversify the household economy.

Deer painting

Maud is one successful entrepreneur. Her folksy paintings soon draw the attention of passers by; the cheerfully decorated little house on the wayside soon becomes a stop for designated shopping and repeat customers, a point of interest for visitors. Later, it becomes a converging site for news crews and journalists. Each piece of board painting is sold for about five to six dollars, a card, 10 cent. Everett is the finance minister and holds the purse strings.

The movie presents Maud’s story with beautiful and absorbing cinematography. The pace is slow, allowing viewers to immerse in the outwardly harsh life of Maud’s, in contrast to her vibrant spirit and life-affirming talents. A tiny window is a frame of the world outside. The last part of the film comes to a sad note as Maud succumbs to illness of the lungs.

Now, to the making of the movie. The subject is Canadian, Maud Lewis is very much a Canadian folk art icon, her works are in the collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The filming location is Newfoundland and Labrador. But note this: the movie is helmed by Irish director Aisling Walsh (BAFTA nom Fingersmith, 2005), Maud is played by the English actor Sally Hawkins (Oscar nom Blue Jasmine, 2013), Everett is played by American actor Ethan Hawke (Oscar nom Boyhood, 2014). If I were a protectionist ruler, I wouldn’t have let them come in to make it.

But then again, this is Canada, eh?

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 RIPPLES

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RELATED POST ON RIPPLE EFFECTS:

Séraphine and the wrought-iron chair 

 

 

 

 

Arles: In Search of Van Gogh

Watching the movie Séraphine (my last post) made me think of another artist tormented by mental illness. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in the Netherlands. His artistic imagination was ignited when he moved to Paris in 1886 and saw the works of the impressionists. But the prolific period of his life began only after he went south to Arles.

I visited Provence in August, 2010, went on a walking tour of Arles following the footsteps of Van Gogh. For Paris in July hosted by Karen of Bookbath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea, I’m reposting an excerpt of my travelogue here. Some of you may remember my series of travel posts, but many of you have come to Ripple Effects only recently. Please join me as I revisit Arles and its nearby St-Rémy-de-Provence.

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Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris in 1888, seeking the tranquility that was so elusive to him in the big city. In his letter to his brother Theo upon arrival to Arles, he wrote:

It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.”  — Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1888.

The fresher and more colourful palette is apparent during this most prolific period of the artist’s life. Bright yellows, blues, shorter and swirling brush strokes established his signature style.

As for me, I was a bit disappointed to see the sunflowers have already withered in late August. Fields of yellow were now massive brown. They would be harvested at a later time for their oil, a good reminder that, for tourists, it’s the view and the photos, but for those living here, it’s their livelihood. The lavenders on the Luberon mountains too had long passed the season. Note to myself: Early to Mid July is best if I ever come this way again.

But all was not lost. I was gratified to follow some of Van Gogh’s footsteps as I explored the clearly posted Van Gogh sites in the town, the scenes and locales where the artist so vividly captured in his paintings.

Arles is a Roman town. What more prominent landmark to reflect its past glory than the Roman Arena in the town centre. Why all the arches? The free flow of pedestrian traffic. The full seating capacity, 20,000 people, could exit the Arena in 7 minutes.

Used by gladiators in ancient time, the Arena is still the venue for bullfights:

But Van Gogh’s interest was not so much in the violent action of bullfighting than the people, as his painting Spectators In The Arena At Arles (December, 1888) clearly shows:

The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum was his hang-out, renamed Café Van Gogh now. The yellow café upon the backdrop of the blue, starry night had deeply inspired the artist:

Café Terrace At Night (September, 1888):

Van Gogh had wanted to make Arles a hub for fellow artists. Upon his urging, Gauguin came to join him in October, 1888. The two painters frequented the Café Terrace many a night but only for two short months. What happened on December 23rd was reported by the local paper the next day:

At 11:30 pm., Vincent Vaugogh [sic], painter from Holland, appeared at the brothel at no. 1, asked for Rachel, and gave her his cut-off earlobe, saying, ‘Treasure this precious object.’  Then he vanished.

After this incident, Van Gogh was admitted to a local hospital, now the Espace Van Gogh in Arles, a cultural centre:

And here is Van Gogh’s rendering when he was staying there:

In January, 1889, Van Gogh returned home to his ‘Yellow House’ (which has now been torn down and reconstructed), but for the next few months, suffered onslaughts of hallucinations and delusions. His view of his own condition nevertheless was lucid and even progressive for his time. His letter to Theo is poignant, as he openly faced his predicament and earnestly sought a solution:

And for the time being I wish to remain confined, as much for my own tranquillity as for that of others.

What consoles me a little is that I’m beginning to consider madness as an illness like any other and accept the thing as it is, while during the actual crises it seemed to me that everything I was imagining was reality.”

— Sunday, April 21, 1889.

On May 8, 1889, he checked himself into the Saint Paul de Mausole, the mental hospital at St-Rémy-de-Provence. Under the care of his doctor Théophile Peyron, the artist’s condition improved and he thrived in the idyllic environment there. Art therapy had brought healing and prolific output. Van Gogh stayed there for a year and created more than 150 paintings.

Dr. Théophile Peyron out at the front garden of Saint Paul de Mausole hospital:

The olive grove outside:

Olive Grove (June, 1889):

To his brother Theo, he wrote on Sunday, May 11, 1890:

At the moment the improvement is continuing, the whole horrible crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm, and I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush. I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises…

My Van Gogh trip ended at St. Rémy, and so be it. I’ve seen the sites wherein the artist was at his most prolific. I’ve seen the town and surroundings where he found inspiration.  I’ve seen his final solace where he attained some stability and painted with passion. I’d like to keep these as memories of my travel to Provence. I could hardly bear to think of his last days, discharged from St. Rémy just a few days after the above letter, headed north to Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirt of Paris, and in just two short months, succumbed to the recurrence of his illness. He shot himself in the chest with a revolver on July 27, 1890, and died of his wound two days later.

Back to the thoughts I wrote about: How do we keep art from turning into a cliché? I think it takes a certain awareness of the artist as a person, plus a measure of empathy and respect for the struggle to live and create… and realizing that the beautiful works are often triumphs in spite of life’s overwhelming adversities, rather than the natural products of bliss and fortune.

To wrap up my travel posts, and taking the risk of turning it into a cliché albeit my motive is pure, here’s the YouTube clip again, Don McLean’s tribute to Vincent:

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My five-part travelogue on England and France:

  1. Tate Modern & Billy Elliot
  2. Bath’s Persuasion
  3. Paris: The Latin Quarter
  4. Art and Cliché
  5. Arles In the Steps of Van Gogh

Séraphine and the Wrought-Iron Chair

By day, she scrubs floors, cleans houses, washes dirty linens in the river. By night, she paints. She is Séraphine, a cleaning woman in her fifties. Later, she is better known as Séraphine de Senlis. 

Séraphine (2008), a film based on the life of the early 20th Century French painter Séraphine Louis (1864-1942), won 7 César Awards in France including Best Film of 2009 and Best Actress for Yolande Moreau as Séraphine. True to its subject matter, director Martin Provost has crafted an aesthetically pleasing work of art. The pace is slow for the viewer to savour every bit. Moreau’s charming portrayal of Séraphine is captivating. She wins my heart from the first scene.

It is gratifying to be noticed, to be confirmed of one’s worth. To the dismissive eye, an ageing cleaning woman is nothing to deserve another glance. Makes me think of the concierge Renée in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. In one of the apartment units which Séraphine cleans, a new tenant just moves in. He is Wilhelm Uhde, a noted art critic and collector of Picasso. He is also the one who has discovered Henri Rousseau of the naive art style, a term referring to untrained talents, a term to which Uhde doesn’t subscribe.

And right there in his rental unit Uhde notices another hidden gem of this style, his own housecleaner Séraphine. Uhdle is deeply moved by her work and soon becomes her patron. He stops her from mopping his floor, leads her out into the garden, seats her down in a wrought-iron chair and tells her she has talent. It is a wrought-iron chair that I notice since that scene, and it recurs later in the film, a metaphor for aesthetics, style and elegance, antidote to the crude reality of Séraphine’s life.

Séraphine loves nature, and nature rewards her with inspiration.

Her subjects are mainly flowers and fruits, their design exquisite, natural, colourful and lively. 

Deep religious fervour soon drives Séraphine to relentless, maddening obsession to paint. She claims to follow voices from her guardian angel. She would sing hymns at the top of her voice while painting through the night, waking up in the morning on the floor with her work-in-progress. She gradually becomes delusional and out of touch with reality.

Why is it that giftedness and mental illness often find affinity for each other? Van Gogh comes to mind. And only recently did I read this Guardian article drawing uncanny similarities between Séraphine and Susan Boyle.

As WWI draws near, the impending conflicts push Uhde out of France and back to Germany. They reunite after the War. Sadly, the painter’s growing achievement brings about more severe delusions. Later the economic depression ends contact between patron and artist for a while.

When Uhde finds Séraphine some years later, she is locked up in an insane asylum. This latter part of the movie is a bit uncomfortable to watch. Uhde is unable to communicate with her as she is restrained in a straight jacket, tied to the bed weeping in anguish.

Months pass and in 1935 Uhde visits her again. He needs to tell Séraphine her paintings are selling. Her condition has stabilized by now but upon doctor’s advice, Uhde should just leave her be. There in the asylum at Asile de Clermont Uhde quietly pays for her a private room with a view out towards a lush green meadow and full, leafy trees.

The ending that follows is one of the best I’ve seen in films. We see Séraphine being led into the room. She sits on her bed, dazed, unfeeling. Then she turns her head and notices the door leading outside to the trees and green meadow. The next three silent minutes bring us to a poignant closing:

Séraphine slowly gets up and opens the door. She sees a wrought-iron chair on the porch. The frame on screen here is roughly split in two. On the left side is her room with a sterile, wooden chair of the asylum. On the right we see the porch outside with the wrought-iron chair, not unlike the one she had sat on while being declared a talent by Uhde years before. She tentatively steps out of her room, touches and examines the chair, then picks it up and slowly carries it with her up a green hill to a full, beautiful tree. From afar, we see her look at the tree, put the chair under its shade, sit down and tilt her head back, fully relaxed.

In the silence with just the wind blowing, it seems we can hear her gratified sigh of relief, being back in nature, coming home.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

CLICK HERE to watch Séraphine’s official trailer on Youtube. You’ll be able to see the ending scene. But of course, nothing compares to watching the film in its entirety.

A NOTE ABOUT MOVIE PHOTOS: These images are used according to the Fair Use guidelines for criticism, comment and educational purposes. CLICK HERE for more information. CLICK HERE to read the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Society For Cinema Studies, “Fair Usage Publication of Film Stills” by Kristin Thompson.

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This movie review is my third post for Paris in July hosted by Karen of BookBath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea. To read my previous posts you can click HERE and HERE.

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

While reading van Gogh’s letters is a fascinating journey into the mind of the artist, it is also poignantly heartbreaking. This is an abridged version of van Gogh’s letters, almost all written to his brother Theo from the various places he had stayed from 1872-1890, Holland, Belgium, England and France.

A few decades separate his life from Hemingway’s, but I think he too had his “moveable feast”.  To the painter, it’s not Paris, but the open country of southern France, in particular, Arles and St. Remy’s, Provence.

(A corner store in Arles, named after the famous ‘Yellow House’ Van Gogh once lived in)

Unlike Hemingway, van Gogh felt Paris only ‘distracts’. He wrote to his brother Theo after moving to Arles from Paris in February, 1888:

It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.

While Hemingway sought to “write one true sentence”, van Gogh yearned to reflect what was true through his paintings:

… giving a true impression of what I see. Not always literally exact, rather never exact, for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.

And colours were his tools. Van Gogh began to use a new palette that he did not see in his native Holland. Under the bright Provence sun, the artist excitedly indulged in a myriads of brilliant colours he had not experienced before…”There is that sulphur yellow everywhere the sun lights on.” He eagerly ushered in a new style.

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly… — To Theo from Arles, August 1888

(The Sower)

I believe in the absolute necessity for a new art of colour, of design, and — of the artistic life.”

“But the painter of the future will be such a colourist as has never yet been [emphasis his].

Through the artist’s colourful lens, the view that van Gogh saw was one that I could never imagine. Here he described to his brother Theo a painting he’d finished, in a letter dated September, 1888:

 … the starry sky painted actually at night under a gas jet. The sky is greenish blue, the water royal blue, the ground mauve. The town is blue and violet, the gas is yellow and the reflections are russet gold down to greenish bronze. On the blue-green field of the sky the Great Bear sparkles green and rose, its discreet pallor contrasts with the brutal gold of the gas.

(Starry Night)

Many of the letters are descriptions like this to Theo in Paris. Reading them, I can sense the artist’s excitement and joy in capturing everything he saw in Arles:

At the moment I am working on some plum trees, yellowish white, with thousands of black branches. I am using a tremendous lot of colours and canvases…

… it will be to our advantage to make the most we can of the orchards in bloom. I am well started now, and I think I must have ten more, the same subject. You know, I am changeable in my work, and this craze for painting orchards will not last for ever. After this may be the arenas…

His letters alas are also pleas for funds, as he was “literally starving”. With the last fr.5 he had, he’d spend it on canvases. He lived in dire poverty most of his career, damaging his physical and mental health.

I can’t do without colours, and colours are expensive… I cannot get more on credit. And yet I love painting so…

Worse still, his letters are also accounts of anguish, depression, and “unbearable hallucinations.” He desperately sought cures, admitting himself into the asylum in St. Remy’s. Ironically, it was there that he experienced the most prolific period of his life.

                    (St. Paul’s Hospital at St. Remy’s)

Throughout van Gogh’s numerous letters, there are many beautiful lines, insight into love, art, books, and life. Here are a few:

  • “Since I really love there is more reality in my drawings.” — Autumn 1881
  • “I would not give a farthing for life, if there were not something infinite, something deep, something real.” — December 1881
  • “It is the painter’s duty to be entirely absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express sentiment in his work so that it becomes intelligible to other people. To work for the market is in my opinion not exactly the right way…” — July 1882
  • “I assure you that some days at the hospital were very interesting, and perhaps it is from the sick that one learns how to live.”  — January 1889
  • “I took advantage of my outing to buy a  book… I have devoured two chapters of it… This is the first time for several months that I have had a book in my hand. That means a lot to me and does a good deal towards my cure.” — March 1889
  • “What I should very much like to have to read here now and then, would be a Shakespeare… What touches me, as in some novelists of our day, is that the voices of these people, which in Shakespeare’s case reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. — From St. Remy’s Hospital, June 1889.

But tragically, van Gogh succumbed to his mental illness. In July, 1890 two months after moving back to Auvers, north of Paris, he went out to the open fields and shot himself. Two days later he died from his gunshot wound. He was 37.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh to his Brother and Others. Introduction by his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, abridged by Elfreda Powell, Published by Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2003, 324 pages.

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The is my last post for the blogging event Paris in July hosted by Karen of BookBath, and Tamara of Thyme for Tea. My other post is “A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway.”

To read my travel post from last August “Arles: In The Steps of Van Gogh” CLICK HERE.

Photos: Van Gogh’s paintings, from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. Arles and St. Remy’s by Arti of Ripple Effects, August, 2010.

To read all the 900 letters of van Gogh online, go to this excellent site of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Gifts to Myself

December 26 is Boxing Day in Canada.  Like Black Friday in the US, that’s the time to pick up bargains, and pay half the price you did just two days before.  And like Black Friday, it’s the time for legitimate self indulgence for the common good, our economy.

In recent years I’ve avoided shopping on Boxing Day. I know some people getting up at 5 am to line up for a store opening at 6.  My own experience of the Boxing Day craze had been standing 3 or 4 people deep, stretched out my arm to the sale table and grabbed whatever I could out of it, hopefully something I needed.

Out of curiosity, I gave it a try again this time around… and sure glad I ventured out.  I didn’t have to fight the crowds, and waited just a bit longer in line-ups . But well worth it.  Here are some of the gifts I got for myself at half price: wall calendars which I won’t be hanging up.

I know, prices here are not as low as in the US… we’re always paying a few dollars more in printed products. But just about $10 each, these beautiful art calendars are good buys for me. Best of all, I found all my favorite artists.  Those familiar with Ripple Effects would know.  I’ve posted on Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-75) here, Edward Hopper (US, 1882-1967) here, and images of René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967) here and here.  So I was really excited to be able to find big prints of their works.

VERMEER 2011


 

The 12 paintings are some of Vermeer’s well known works.  The cover of course is the most famous, The Girl With The Pearl Earring (1665).  If you’re interested, you might like to read my reviews of the book based on this painting and the film adaptation here.

I have seen two of the paintings in the calendar, The Lacemaker (1669) and The Geographer (1668-69), both at The Louvre.  Interesting that the calendar prints are about the same size as the originals, or maybe even a tad bigger, for The Lacemaker.  Here are my photos of them hanging on the wall in the Louvre:

 

But the July print stands out, the only one that has an exterior view.  It’s my favorite of all the twelve months.  The Little Street (1658):

 

 

Edward Hopper 16-Month 2011 Calendar


 

I have 16 prints of some of my favorite Hopper paintings.  A few of them I’ve posted before, asking readers’ opinion on them. Here are a couple more that I’d like to elicit your views:

People In The Sun (1960)

 

 

 

Chop Suey (1929)

 

Magritte 2011


 

The cover is the Belgian artist’s work in 1953, Golconda.  Just wondering… is this the origin of the term “rain man”?  Or, are the men going up like balloons?

René Magritte was born just 16 years after Hopper, and died the same year, 1967.  So contemporaries they had been for some years, but a world of difference in terms of style.  I like the realism and existential elements hidden in Hopper’s works, but I also enjoy Magritte’s surrealist and whimsical images, openly challenging our sense of reality:

The Treachery of Images (1929)

Ceci n’est pas une pipe:  This is not a pipe.  Your take on this?

 

The Interpretation of Dreams (1935)

 

In the past years, I’ve saved up a lot of visuals just like these calendars, as teaching materials for adult ESL.  But this one definitely cannot be used for vocabulary building.  Just hang on… that may well be what Magritte is saying: ‘In a dream world, a horse can be a door, a jug a bird…’  And for that matter, how do you know you’re not dreaming right now?  Mmm… just wondering, has the movie Inception included Magritte in the credits?

 

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Arles: In The Steps of Van Gogh

Solution to Arti’s Cryptic Challenge #4: Arles

While Paris has her cultured beauty and sophistication, I’d appreciated the change of scenery and warmer weather as I headed south to Provence.  Three hours via the TGV took us to the historic City of Avignon, site of the Papal Palace before the Vatican. We stayed in Avignon for three days, taking daily excursions out to nearby towns.  Arles was a must-see on my list.

Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris in 1888, seeking the tranquility that was so elusive to him in the big city.  In his letter to his brother Theo upon arrival to Arles, he wrote:

It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.”    — Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1888.

The fresher and more colourful palette is apparent during this most prolific period of the artist’s life.  Bright yellows, blues, shorter and swirling brush strokes established his signature style.  As for me, I was a bit disappointed to see the sunflowers have already withered in late August.  Fields of yellow were now massive brown.  They would be harvested at a later time for their oil, a good reminder that, for tourists, it’s the view, but for those living here, it’s their livelihood.  The lavenders on the Luberon mountains too had long passed the season.  Note to myself:  Early to Mid July is best if I ever come this way again.

But all was not lost.  I was gratified to follow some of Van Gogh’s footsteps as I explored the clearly posted Van Gogh sites in the town, the scenes and locales where the artist so vividly captured in his paintings.

Arles is a Roman town.  What more prominent to reflect its past glory than the Roman Arena in the town centre.  Why all the arches?  The free flow of pedestrian traffic.  The full seating capacity, 20,000 people, could exit the Arena in 7 minutes.

.

Used by gladiators in ancient time, the Arena is still the venue for bullfights:

But Van Gogh’s interest was not so much on the violent action of bullfighting than on the people, as his painting Spectators In The Arena At Arles (December, 1888) clearly shows:

The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum was his hang-out, renamed Café Van Gogh now.  The yellow building upon the backdrop of the blue, starry night had deeply inspired the artist:

Café Terrace At Night (September, 1888):

Van Gogh had wanted to make Arles a hub for fellow artists.  Upon his urging, Gauguin came to join him in October, 1888.  The two painters frequented the Café Terrace many a night but only for two short months.  What happened on December 23rd was reported by the local paper the next day:

At 11:30 pm., Vincent Vaugogh [sic], painter from Holland, appeared at the brothel at no. 1, asked for Rachel, and gave her his cut-off earlobe, saying, ‘Treasure this precious object.’  Then he vanished.[1]

After this incident, Van Gogh was admitted to a local hospital, now the Espace Van Gogh in Arles, a cultural centre:

In January, 1889, Van Gogh returned home to the Yellow House, but for the next few months, suffered onslaughts of hallucinations and delusions. His view of his own condition nevertheless was lucid and even progressive for his time.  His letter to Theo is poignant, as he openly faced his predicament and earnestly sought a solution:

And for the time being I wish to remain confined, as much for my own tranquillity as for that of others.

What consoles me a little is that I’m beginning to consider madness as an illness like any other and accept the thing as it is, while during the actual crises it seemed to me that everything I was imagining was reality.”

— Sunday, April 21, 1889.

On May 8, 1889, he checked himself into the Saint Paul de Mausole, the mental hospital at St-Rémy-de-Provence.  Under the care of his doctor Théophile Peyron, the artist’s condition improved and he thrived in the idyllic environment there.  Art therapy had brought healing and prolific output.  Van Gogh stayed there for a year and created more than 150 paintings.

Dr. Théophile Peyron out at the front garden:

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The olive grove outside St. Paul hospital:

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To his brother Theo, he wrote on Sunday, May 11, 1890:

At the moment the improvement is continuing, the whole horrible crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm, and I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush.  I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises…

My Van Gogh trip ended at St. Rémy, and so be it.  I’ve seen the sites wherein the artist was at his most prolific.  I’ve seen the town and surroundings where he found inspiration.  I’ve seen his final solace where he attained some stability and painted with passion.  I’d like to keep these as memories of my travel to Provence.  I could hardly bear to think of his last days, discharged from St. Rémy just a few days after the above letter, headed north to Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirt of Paris, and in just two short months, succumbed to the recurrence of his illness. He shot himself in the chest with a revolver on July 27, 1890, and died of his wound two days later.

Back to the thoughts I wrote about in my last post: How do we keep art from turning into a cliché?  I think it takes a certain awareness of the artist as a person, plus a measure of empathy and respect for the struggle to live and create… and realizing that the beautiful works are often triumphs in spite of life’s overwhelming adversities, rather than the natural products of bliss and fortune.

To wrap up my travel posts, and taking the risk of turning it into a cliché albeit my motive is pure, here’s the YouTube clip again, Don McLean’s tribute to Vincent:

Some Van Gogh links:

An excellent and comprehensive site for Van Gogh’s letters, 900 of them, poignant account of his life.

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh Gallery online

Wikipedia: Vincent Van Gogh

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[1]  Rick Steves’ Provence and French Riviera 2010, published by Avalon Travel, p. 69.