Van Gogh: Tortured Soul, Shining Star
Long before the selfie made it into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one artist captured himself on canvas with oils in many self-portraits, including paintings that showed him with his left ear bandaged after it was cut off and given to a prostitute. That body part was not the appendage she expected to be holding that evening, as her fainting spell indicated.
Post-impressionist Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh left behind a mystery about how that ear was sliced off. The accepted truth has been that he cut off his own ear one December evening in 1888 in Arles, France, after fighting with his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. While two German historians believe that Gauguin sliced the ear off during a dispute, the truth about who severed Van Gogh’s ear may never be known. There is no question, however, that Van Gogh was a tortured soul. He sold just one painting during his short lifetime, which ended by his own hand at the age of 37. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
Though I’m not an art historian or a Van Gogh expert, I am a huge fan and have planned some of my travels around his legacy. The first leg of my pilgrimage began almost 12 years ago when I took my dream trip to Paris. Among the sites I highlighted in my tourist books was the small town of Auvers-sur-Oise about 30 minutes outside of Paris, where Van Gogh is buried next to his brother and biggest supporter, Theo. My traveling companion was an easygoing friend who let me plan each day’s agenda, so when we boarded a train at the Gare du Nord station and Auvers-sur-Oise did not appear as one of the train’s stops, he was not of any help. After a quick scan of all the unfamiliar faces on the train, I attempted to communicate my dilemma in French to a petite woman. We spoke each other’s languages poorly but well enough to get the basics. She suggested that we get off at her stop in St. Leu la Foret, where she would then drive us to Auvers-sur-Oise, and we took her up on the offer.
In Auvers-sur-Oise, we visited the gravesite of Vincent and Theo; the 12th – 13th century Gothic church of Auvers that was the subject of one of Van Gogh’s paintings; and the attic room at the Auberge Ravoux, the inn where Van Gogh spent many of his last days, including his last hours after he shot himself in a nearby wheat field. As for what happened to that stranger I met on the train, Marie and I are friends to this day. She and her husband, Jean-Claude, were instrumental in making the second part of my Van Gogh pilgrimage to Provence happen in the fall of 2012. They rented a farmhouse in Bonnieux in the Luberon Mountain region and planned a full week for me, including a day that was filled with visits to sites where Van Gogh once stood, painted and held his severed ear in his hand.
While it felt like a dream to see the places in Arles where Van Gogh was both inspired and tormented by self-doubt and aural hallucinations, it also felt surreal and a touch comical to wander into shops lining the streets where racks and shelves held every imaginable tchotchke bearing Van Gogh’s face or one of his famous paintings. It was like being in a store in Philadelphia and seeing everything with a Liberty Bell or Phillies logo on it, or in New York and seeing the Statue of Liberty and the Yankees on everything. But I did buy Starry Night napkins and a plastic ornament that I happily hung on my Christmas tree three months later. A fan is a fan, whether it’s a sports team or a painter that you adore.
Van Gogh spent time in an asylum in Arles, a stay that was supposedly encouraged by locals who feared him. Today that hospital is used to store information and house shops, but the beautiful garden in the center appears similar to Van Gogh’s paintings from 1888. It was indescribable—if a bit cheesy—posing for a picture near the garden.
In our walking tour of the city we had trouble finding the site of Le Café La Nuit, the subject of another of Van Gogh’s famous paintings, but the GPS in Jean Claude’s tiny car came to our rescue. I felt a tingle standing in front of the pale yellow café, because four years earlier I had bought a framed photo of this café at the Virginia Arts Festival in Williamsburg, never envisioning that I would visit it one day.
Saint Remy de Provence seemed less touristy than Arles. The town had an ease and casual elegance as people walked slowly and stopped at cafes for drinks and to browse the shops. The best part of my Van Gogh tour was our visit to the Saint Paul de Mausole monastery, which was the hospital near Saint Remy where Van Gogh had himself institutionalized because of aural hallucinations. While staying at the hospital, he would occasionally eat his paint, yet through his madness he painted one of his most famous works, The Starry Night. While many believe this painting represented the view he had through his window at the asylum, it is actually a blend of what he saw there, what he had in his memory from previous dwelling places, and how he dreamed the landscape should appear.
If there ever was a place to feel Van Gogh’s presence, it was there on the hospital grounds. I could feel why he was inspired by this landscape with fields of shapely olive trees and neat rows of lavender in the back garden. But upstairs inside the hospital where his bedroom and bathing room had been, a feeling of cold and sterile emptiness loomed. One can only try to imagine Van Gogh’s struggle between lightness and darkness, exuberance and self-doubt, which ended with his inner darkness shutting out the light of his stars. Fortunately, we can still look at his Starry Night and be moved by the rhythmic effect of the thickly applied colors. We can feel the emotion and intensity behind his other works like The Bedroom, Sunflowers, and Irises that depict beauty around us. For fans like me, no matter how dark it gets, Van Gogh’s talents will always shine brightly.
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