Before you ask – no, I haven’t watched the Doctor Who episode. But I’ve sure as hell watched this and cried just as hard.
And I was like, damn, if the enthusiasm of Van Gogh had touched the people of his time then, then maybe I wouldn’t have erupted in waterworks on this day.
The day dawned bright and brisk and cold, with leaves and tree trunks still gray-green from low temperatures and long-fallen leaves, but where fresh balmy breeze – though cold and nippy- gave whispers of spring.
My dad, always the planner, and especially good at it considering he was still meticulous and methodical before smartphones, and before the golden age of the Internet. Still just as fearless in approaching people who don’t share a language with him, and still just as fond of gesticulating wildly in order to ask a question about where we were standing, he told us that we were going to the “Van Gogh monastery” that day. This was on the tail-end of a grand adventure in southern France (previous mini-adventures included Carcassonne, Eze, Avignon, and Lourmarin) devoid of lavender blooms and warm sun, but you take what you can get when operating on the academic calendar of a college kid.
Van Gogh was a monk? I pictured a wizened hooded figure with a bright red beard.
It turned out that no, I hadn’t missed a huge piece of art history and van Gogh did not renounce creating artwork to become a monk, but he had checked himself into the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence – today the Saint Paul de Mausole – which indeed was originally an Augustinian priory, and retains the stately Franciscan architectural style.
He was there because Van Gogh had, by all accounts, cut off either part or all of his left ear following an argument with his good friend Paul Gauguin. Whether this actually happened is up for debate among historians – but it sure makes a better story.
Looking at this self-portrait, I can’t help but think that if I had a missing left ear, I would kind of want to paint myself with the ear still in existence. Like kind of a old-timey Instagram vs. Reality, know what I’m saying?
But he didn’t do that, so I guess Van Gogh was more about that uncurated, keeping-it-100-with-y’all kind of guy. He’d probably say fuck the haters, too.
The path to the main building was long and straight. Flanked by towering trees with outstretched bare branches and neatly trimmed winter grass, it wasn’t llong before we approached the somber figure of a great bronze Van Gogh, as serious in his frozen rendition as he was in his self-portraits. I imagined, with ease, flaming red hair and close-cropped fuzz on his cheeks and chin, giving color to this cold block of bronze in his likeness.
The path then wound right to a small courtyard and door, where immediately, we found ourselves in a grand outdoor cloister in Romanesque style: imposing arches giving way to an enormous wooden door.
It creaked as I pushed it open. There was a girl in large round wire glasses and long chestnut hair sitting primly at
a desk alone, and all around the room was a veritable feast of Van Gogh everything: postcards, computer mouse pads, prints…oh, and books upon books upon books. Starry Night brimmed from a framed reprint on a table, while sunflowers burst from another on a wall.
It was all deliciously kitsch, but placed in such silent somber walls of stone, and so meticulously organized, that it didn’t matter.
The brown haired girl facilitated the purchase of four tickets expertly and with a tight-lipped smile. She did not speak. I wished then that I could pull off that same matter-of-fact disinterest, but alas, in customer service roles that I’ve held in the past, I’ve only been a bumbling American, decidedly uncool in my eager grins and easy laughter. It is just not in my breeding to be aloof, and I think I am okay with that.
And so, passing through the gift shop that screamed Van Gogh, we pushed the next great wooden door open, which swung open slowly with a giant creak, and stepped upstairs, soft footsteps bouncing off the stone stairwell.
A lone bed was pushed to the right side of the room. The walls were bare, save for a single painting. The ceiling was the same color as the walls, which were the same color as the floor. A single window with bars gave a view into the courtyard. I peered through, seeing the same cool brown-green grass and bare branches I’d noticed from the road. And as I stared at the bed and its lone pillow, the spindly wire frame groaning silently under the mattress’s weight, and at that sole painting propped up against an easel, breathed the musty air, a deep melancholy settled in my stomach.
Van Gogh had been here.
“I feel happier here with my work than I could be outside. By standing here a good long time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run the result will be more order in my life,” a placard with his writings said. A sentence with sadness and resignation, and yet…with a beam of quiet hope.
It was here that he created a collection of paintings titled: Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Remy, a maddeningly beautiful set of works: vibrant and serene and wild – all at once. His greatest work, The Starry Night, depicted the view outside his sanatorium window, though it was painted from memory and finished in 1889.
In the next room, a cold narrow bathtub was set in the center. Besides receiving two-hour baths twice a week, Van Gogh did not appear to have any other treatment. Dotting the room were framed articles and information, in both French and English, detailing the treatment of those with mental disabilities and those who were not able to live without assistance – that they needed permission to do anything and everything.
“Though here there are some patients very seriously ill, the fear and horror of madness that I used to have has already lessened a great deal. And though here you continually hear terrible cries and howls like beasts in a menagerie, in spite of that people get to know each other very well and help each other when their attacks come on.”
As I shuffled slowly through the room, whispers from other visitors echoing through the walls, I came across the last placard. On it was a print of Van Gogh, well-bearded, with a bright yellow straw hat placed on his head, staring intently at the viewer.
“His existence was characterized by the distress of a man who wanted to love humanity but was not able to communicate with men, who was misunderstood, ignored, and despised by everybody, who felt maladjusted in his deepest being. He found answer and receptiveness of mind only those whose humanism doesn’t wait for collective gratefulness to exist. At that end of the 19th century, which was gradually falling in lust according to certain people, Van Gogh has been recognized and supported only by rare close people and artist friends, his family, the clergyman Salles, the Tambourin, the “salon des Independants” and one of its members, Anna Boch (who bought his only painting before his death, “the red vines”) and the doctors and nurses of Arles hospital, Auvers sur Oise, the Saint Paul asylum in Saint Remy de Provence.”
And then, lastly, his alleged and now-famous last effusion before his death: “The sadness will last forever.”
And suddenly my eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t just from being in this place, or from seeing the plainness of a plain bed on a plain frame, and the bathtub that was used twice a week, and the loneliness of these beautiful cloisters and iciness of the manicured courtyard when not in bloom. It was the realization that there could and is the existence of great genius, right under our very noses, which we dismiss daily, and a humbling reminder that the dismissal of others and their work is so easily done.
I left Saint Paul more reflective than I had been when I’d come. And that night, I opened my laptop, and studied Van Gogh’s paintings from his early days – the dark realism that influenced his “peasant genre”, full of moody colors and quick and sharp strokes. What a contrast to the wistfully sweeping dramatic bursts of color wonderlands in his later life. It was then that I realized that I was all the more touched from knowing his story and having stood in a place that he’d stood.
I looked at his self-portrait again and realized that it wasn’t just admiration for Van Gogh’s dramatic brushstrokes that I was feeling – it was also a deep melancholy that had settled in my bones – of a man’s past that had become so palpable that could not be ignored.
|What to Know When Visiting Saint Remy|
2 chemin des carrières,13210 Saint-Rémy-de-ProvencePhone:
+33 4 90 92 72 61 Cost:
6 euros per person
Free for ages of 12 and underHours:
1 April – 30 September: 9:30am – 7:00pm
1 January – 7 February: Closed
1 November and 25 December: Closed