ARLES, FRANCE & VINCENT VAN GOGH
This experience of Déjà-vu has happened to me only one other time – at the Cenote Sacrificial at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, Mexico. Being a practical person, I still have a tendency to be more of an unbeliever in the mystery of cloudy remembrances than not. But this time so many years later, it happened again, in Arles, France. I felt I had been there before, but now, I think it had to do with how much I knew, and maybe also, how much I had forgotten, about Vincent van Gogh.
I had studied art history in college, and knew something about van Gogh’s works, but mostly I was fascinated by how his mental states, which were teetering in later life, between an anxious sanity and clouded mania, affected his work. But I had ostensibly forgotten much of that, although one of my Psych professors said you never really forget, it is always on the periphery of consciousness, waiting to be remembered. So maybe that was what was happening when, on the Emerald Waterways cruise, up the Rhone, we docked in Arles.
What I knew about Arles was minimal, mostly having to do with Roman history and art history, such a unique, diverse combination. We walked from the Emerald Liberté, up a main street where we first saw some Roman ruins – part of an old wall that was a Roman fortress. There were flowers growing on it now, as there have been flowers growing on many old fortressed walls. As in graves of old, if you wait long enough flowers grow out of everything, fitting and colorful remembrances of what lasts, and perhaps also, what is most important.
But beyond the flowered walls, as we walked, I began to remember Vincent (what he always called himself, and how he signed his works) and what he had written to his brother, Theo, about being in Arles. He loved Arles, because of its weather (what he considered hot and sunny, with the occasional mistral wind blowing, cooling things off) but also because of its color. I remembered this color idea, walking through the streets, and I understood what he meant, and also what color must have meant to him as he was in process of falling into crevices of manic cliffs, then climbing out. The colors and scents of Arles may have been triggers that allowed Vincent to paint, as it is said, over 300 paintings and drawings, many of his most famous, including The Night Cafe, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and L’Arlésienne.
He domiciled in basically two places: one, part of a house, that he called The Yellow House, he rented, and whose street, Place Lamartine I walked. The Yellow House is not there anymore, but its topography was. And the cobblestones outside the area were the same as Vincent walked. I remembered the paintings of the Yellow House interiors and his studio and bedroom– so simple, yet, to me, with that yellow color, so ominous also: like objects that had memory, chairs waiting to be used, waiting to be broken. It was there he painted his Sunflower paintings, not, as I remember, with great artistic intent, but for home décor; something to fill the walls of his studio and his room.
Walking farther away from where the Yellow House once was, was the Hotel-Dieu, a sanitarium where he admitted himself, as he tried to catch and maintain that elusive sense of balance, like a bird on a windowsill, flying away at the slightest sound. It was at the Hotel-Dieu where Vincent took a razor and cut off a portion of his ear, a consequence of a manic episode that lasted, it is said, a few days. And it was here, in the garden where I walked, that I was sure that some sense of peace was his for the taking, if he wanted it.
He painted the interiors, as well as a portrait of the intern who worked with him, and the garden with the fountain. The year was 1889, he would live one more year, and really not so long ago in the grand scheme. As I walked the garden, open to everyone, I felt a similar floral peace, laced with familiar scents: lavender in bloom, honeysuckle flush, Madagascar jasmine intensity, all complimented by Bearded Iris, and yellow flowered ground cover with Canna (lily) upshoots every so often. All created this visual, odiferous equipoise. The water sounds of the fountain punctuated the still air, and, as I am sure Vincent sensed, all was well for the moment.
But, oddly, as I sat on an ancient stone bench, overlooking this pastoral scene, imagining that Vincent might have sat here also, the Mistral began to rustle the rose petals below and the Cottonwood leaves above. The Mistral, specific to this Provençal area, reminded me of the unhappy yet predictable conclusion of Vincent’s life in Arles.
He left the Hotel-Dieu, returned to his Yellow House, where his manic state became worse. He finally left Arles to be placed in an asylum at Saint-Rémy. After he discharged himself from there, he moved to the Auberge Ravoux near Paris, where 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He died from his injuries two days later.
Arles, then, seemed to me, one of the last places, if not the last place, where he may have been content, at least for awhile. And even now, that sense of color, of flowers everywhere, of past into present as seen by the ruins, this sense of equanimity remains. And yet with the color, is a kind of nuanced mystery, as if the past laughs at the present. With the present.
As we walked one of the alleyways down to the yellow Café van Gogh, a popular tourist spot, dedicated to van Gogh and his colors, and where, it was said by our guide, “the food was not so good,” we stopped at a street painting of a woman in a traditional Provençal dress. It was, the guide said, of “L’Arlesienne.” You might think, as most in our group did, this meant an Arlesienne woman, but I did remember that it also meant, in Provençal, an unknown person, or a remembered person but who was not present. I asked which it meant, and the guide said, with a slight smile, “Ah, Madame, that is up to you.”
It was then, I felt I had been here before, seen this before, and knew the answer. I thought also, just then, I could hear Vincent, one-eared by now, unwell, remembered but not present, burst out in an understanding, yet slightly manic laugh.