Van Gogh April 14, 2010Posted by jayocallahan in Adventures.
There are some artists who follow you through life. Van Gogh is one of those artists for me. When I was in college Van Gogh’s letters opened up a world. I loved his intensity, his love of color, literature and life. He inspired me. I wanted to create but that seemed a dream, an impossibility. In time I broke away from my job and began to write assuming I’d be a novelist. I spent the next seven years as a caretaker on a beautiful salt-water marsh and was telling my children hundreds and hundreds of stories. I’d found my path, a path that has allowed me to explore the beauty and the pain of life.
Ten years ago I led a workshop in Provence with my friend Doug Lipman. Van Gogh’s letters drew us there.
Last Friday, April 9, my wife, Linda and I took the train from Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise, the last place Van Gogh lived and painted. We get off the train and see trees are just blooming and the tulips are out. Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise on 20 May 1890. I imagine the trees would have been fully green when he arrived and the forsythia and tulips would have passed. Linda and I find much in the village unchanged from Van Gogh’s time. There are flowers everywhere. We have a café crème at a tabac and the young man who brings us the coffee would have delighted Van Gogh. “Americans,” the server laughs, “I love Americans.” He is joyful as a clown and bounces with life.
At the visitor’s center we see a short video showing some photos of Auvers in the1890’s and paintings Van Gogh did at Auvers as well as short phrases from his letters. He wrote of the beauty of the country and his love of art and life. “It is so difficult to be simple,” Van Gogh, wrote which is poignant because he was living in a dark bedroom on the third floor of the Ravoux Inn. The bedroom was just big enough for a bed and chair; the walls were unpainted and cracked. The stairway to his room was very dark and we could almost hear Van Gogh’s footsteps as he left to paint each morning and return at night. He wrote that he hoped any portraits he did would look like apparitions in a hundred years. “Painting,” Van Gogh wrote, “is becoming more like music and less like sculpture.” This is the voice of a vibrant artist. But then he writes of the threat of being uprooted and says, “I did not need to go out of my way to experience sadness and extreme loneliness.”
This man who gave the world such beauty shot himself in Auvers on 27 July. His brother Theo was at Vincent’s side in that dark bedroom at the Ravoux Inn when Vincent died at one-thirty in the morning on July 29, 1890.
After the visitors’ center, Linda and I walk up the curving road to the village graveyard. Vincent and Theo are buried side by side in very simple graves. The fields surrounding the graveyard are as they probably were in Van Gogh’s time. The green wheat is a foot high; there is the smell of tilled earth. Spinach is growing. The sky is blue and the silence is broken by small birds.
After a picnic of cheese, tomato, baguette and a flan for dessert we walk down the hill and stop by the church, L’Eglsie D’Auvers, which Van Gogh painted. There is a funeral going on inside and we wait until it is over. Mourners leave wiping tears away. They’re sad and so am I. Sad Vincent Van Gogh’s life was so lonely and so hard. I’m also deeply indebted to him for his letters, his inspiration, his paintings and his life.