Arles: About Van Gogh

It is September and I am back on the road after spending a month in Canada, but I would be remiss if I failed to pay homage to the final city I visited in France, Arles, during the last week in July.

Provence, at last:

July was meant to be my month exploring different cities and villages in the French region of Provence, but for reasons that escape me, I ended up in regions outside of Provence more often than not. Determined to at least end in the right region, I picked Arles as my final stop.

Arles attracts tourists for 3 main reasons. First, it is a typical Provençal city, with an historic centre filled with stone houses sporting colourful flower pots, narrow winding alleyways, pretty squares where restaurants serve traditional Provençal cuisine heavy on fresh vegetables and meats infused with local herbs, museums, art galleries galore, the requisite pedestrian walkway through the old city center and oodles of French charm, all next to a meandering river, whose bridges had been medieval and quaint until the Allies bombed them during WW2. The surrounding countryside is also typical Provence; vineyards and sunflowers, stone farm houses and churches in the center of small towns built atop hills, where cobblestone streets are the norm, every restaurant has a large patio and bakeries adorn every block.

The Monuments:

The second reason to visit Arles is the monuments, six remnants from the Roman era. Standing in the centre is the Ampitheatre, the 20th largest such structure according to a plaque inside the entrance. Modelled after the much larger Colosseum in Rome, the Arles Ampitheatre could hold 20,000 spectators to watch gladiators fight and chariots racing. It has been revamped and renovated to hold bull races (bull fighting is no longer permitted) and concerts.

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Inside the Arles Ampitheatre

About 2/3rds of the structure is original and after paying the entrance fee, I walked around it and up its tower to admire the views, before moving on to the next monument, the Theatre, a few hundred feet away.

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Part of the Arles Theatre

Nice enough, but what intrigued me most was how the ancient monuments had been integrated into the medieval city. Find a parking spot, walk under an arch in the Roman walls, walk up a winding street barely wide enough for a car and run smack dab into an Ampitheatre or the remains of the Forum across from a cluster of restaurants or next to a shop.

From the Theatre, I made my way to the Crypts, located in a building beside the Hotel de Ville or city hall. Alas, my entrance ticket was only good for 2 monuments, a point not made by the original ticket seller and I was too cheap to start buying individual tickets to the remaining monuments, I walked to the Baths of Constantine and took photos through the fence, but gave the Forum and the Ramparts a miss.

Vincent Van Gogh:

The third reason to visit Arles is the artist, Vincent Van Gogh. I had become enthralled with his life and art at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and wanted to learn more about him. Arles is one of the best places to do it.

Some background here about Van Gogh. He was born to a minister’s son in The Netherlands in 1853. He tried to follow in his father’s footsteps but it didn’t work out, so he turned his attention to art. Dogged by ill health and financially supported by his art dealer brother, he moved to Paris at the age of 33 where he met the artistes challenging traditional notions of art. There, he developed his impressionist style of painting, dominated by thin brushstrokes and faithful descriptions of light and movement. Finding the Paris climate unhealthy, Van Gogh moved to Arles in February, 1888 and stayed for over a year. In Arles he cut off his ear off in a fit of rage after arguing with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. A year later, in 1890, Van Gogh discharged himself from a psychiatric hospital in nearby Saint Remy and committed suicide.

Van Gogh’s time in Arles was prolific. He completed 200 paintings, tons of sketches and penned numerous letters, many of which are on display in Amsterdam. In Arles, the tourist board offers a nightly Van Gogh tour, which I joined with 20 others. Our guide gave us a brief biography, then started walking us to different sights that Van Gogh had lived in, been inspired by or painted. Where Van Gogh had painted a subject, a reproduction and explanation of the picture was displayed. Thus, at the public park, we saw Entrance to the Public Park in Arles.

The Van Gogh cafe is the Cafe Terrace at Night, obviously having undergone a name change. and overpriced for the food according to the guide.

By the Ampitheatre, near the ramparts, we could look into the distance and see the countryside, inspiration for The Oliveraie and Sunflowers. We walked to the river, the watery subject of Starry Night over the Rhone before finishing the tour at the former hospital where Van Gogh stayed recuperating from his ear slashing incident. Here, he painted the The Hospital in Arles.

Van Gogh tried to return to his former lodgings (the yelllow house, now destroyed) following his hospital stay, but the townsfolk, fearful of another of his psychotic episodes, signed a petition which compelled the police to shut down his house. He stayed with his doctor for a few months before leaving for the asylum in Saint Remy.

Immersive Art and Van Gogh

At the Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux-de-Provence, just a 30 minute drive from Arles, Van Gogh’s paintings are the star of an immersive art show, deigned to give the audience an holistic experience – seeing, hearing, touching – the art. In an old stone quarry with 40 foot high walls and much appreciated natural air conditioning in the +40 degree heatwave hovering over southern France, I sat down on a block of rocks and watched as giant reproductions of Van Gogh’s greatest works were projected onto the walls, the floors and the ceilings. Music accompanied the show, people walked around and touched the walls, children danced with the flowers and the stars in Starry Night twinkled above.

For an hour, I was completely bedazzled by the changing artwork and the haunting music, although the song Please don’t let me be Misunderstood was a bit too literal for my liking.

It was a good end to my month attempting to stay in Provence, basking in Van Gogh’s interpretations of the scenery, the farms and the flowers I had been enjoying first hand.

Next stop: Copenhagen

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