…go to Arles. And St. Remy. Discovering the Van Gogh trails in Europe is not hard, considering the size of the continent. But it is a significant path into your own self.
I’m finding it particularly hard to type today, because, with a broken leg and stitches, the healing is likely to take time. Every fall is a pre-condition and also a temptation to stop. The reason why I start with this, isn’t really my bicycle fall, but what Vincent says in Saint Remy- wish he had started working on his illness before. I wish I knew of him before. I wish he had appeared in my life before.
In the multiple Maggie (gasp!) quizzes that I participated in and won as a kid, the desperate genius that Van Gogh was came about time and again. With Hemingway, and Midnight in Paris, and the Starry Night in my MBA classroom, he kept making appearances throughout. Yet, we never met.
Van Gogh Cafe, Arles
Stop 1: The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
My American and a non-Amsterdam newbie husband visited the museum on our last day there, in May. The museum is not just the most outstanding collection of art, it is also one of the most documented and interesting ways to share contextual memories. It helped that Van Gogh wrote so many wonderful handwritten and illustrated letters to his family and friends. The museum allows you to see each piece of art in context of what he wrote, with the feelings of what Van Gogh thought at the time he painted and colored them so. We spent hours trying to find out what makes someone express sadness or disturbance in yellows, oranges and blues. Why did the paintings appear so stark and energized even though they talked about such delicate times?
Van Gogh’s imagination out of observations
There were two aspects in Van Gogh’s letters that spoke to me very strongly and personally. Firstly, his admission that, he draws and paints out of observation (in nature mostly) and not imagination. This perhaps was the speculated point of contention between Gauguin and him.
Throughout growing up and high school, I knew that I was not an artist. I could not necessarily draw out of imagination. This immediately reminded me of an exam by the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, which required me to draw an inverted umbrella, out of imagination. I did. But I felt at that moment that I could not and I needed to see it. Like Ira Glass says, there are two components: your work and your taste. Your taste is good and often feels disappointed in what you create. Everyone goes through it, but it’s important to not stop, because with more stories, you tend to get better. Like the 10,000 hour rule. It took me a very long time to realize that art did not need to belong to one imagination or one style. It was ok to observe and create.
The second aspect he touches upon is this: how can blue exist without orange? We were at our small artsy quarters in St. Remy and my husband was in the small balcony, while I nursed my broken knee. The sky turned orange and all shades of pink in a matter of a few seconds. He came back and said:
artists observe what we do not, and then suddenly we see it. Maybe that’s what artists are for.
I love details. But who controls whether my art fits in with their imagination of how details must be portrayed? To all those multiple critics and art teachers who tell children, oh, but the eyes should not look like this. Or, oh, but this color is wrong- what creativity inhibiting thoughts! Who controls the power of an imaginative thought? Perhaps you’re not seeing what they are.
This visit, made me paint again. I had to find my frame, through the gratitude project, but I decided because I was so inspired. Almost like the years of critical adult attitudes were behind me all at once.
Van Gogh trail easel
Stop 2: The Yellow House And the Cafe, Arles
At the outset, Arles is a lot more than Van Gogh. But his letters and insistence on creating an art center our of Arles, drove us to visit it. Not the French beaches or the promise of the heat of South of France. But, Van Gogh. Like the million Asian tourists who were to photograph the Cafe. The yellow house was unfortunately gutted in World War II.
Arles was hot at 37 degrees and like most houses in Europe, we were not blessed with air conditioning, which was painful. We were convinced this heat had not helped Van Gogh much.
Arles has the unique distinction of being the nude photography capital of the world (well, it’s French). It has art stamped all over, in all its narrow streets. Before art, Arles boasted of the Roman trade and porcelain. It may not have become the art hub that Van Gogh wanted it to be by inviting all his artsy friends in his yellow house, but it has enough artists now to justify his presence. Van Gogh created over 150 paintings in Arles alone. You can do the small Van Gogh trail and walk through his most famous spots and find an easel or two of what he painted there.
Random roadside art installation in Arles
Naturally, I met Ji Dahai, a Chinese artist in Arles. He was exhibiting last week. He works with ink. And we met with mutual leg troubles at a doctor’s clinic. We spoke about Van Gogh. And Rajasthani art. And Joan Miro. After, my stitches. That’s really how Arles functions.
Thirty of his neighbors at the yellow house claimed that he needed help and Van Gogh was sent to a mental hospital at St. Remy.
Stop 3: St Remy’s Van Gogh Trail
At the time Van Gogh was at the St. Remy hospital, he painted 200 pieces- also some of his most celebrated works including the Starry Night. The trail has 19 easels at different points. The further you move from the city center, you get to his work in nature, with cypresses and olive trees. And the Alpilles as a backdrop. The easels are placed exactly where it is believed that he painted those pieces, and also share parts of his letters to add context. The part where he talks about seeing red is also the part where you begin to finally start seeing what he’s seeing. We were too depressed to think about getting inside the hospital and see the reconstruction of his room there. But, the sound of Provence is so unique and piercing that I wasn’t sure how anyone could remain sane.
On July 27, 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest, near Paris.
My husband asked, how could we not do this with Indian art. Why did we have to wait for Van Gogh and fancy Europe to do this? I reminded him that we did trace Ghalib. And also, that in our hustle for getting the seat in the train, we forget to love art as much as we should. We are afraid of losing our position. Or, too entitled to be too creative. At Bulle, we discussed, how children grow up believing short cuts are norm. Parents tell young impressionable minds that they can copy. Originality is a battle and often has low returns on investment. Originality takes time and thousands of hours.
The artsy streets of south of France
We wondered, how did children grow up in Arles?