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A Return to Van Gogh's St. Remy


ST. REMY, France — Wherever you wander in this small market town or the surrounding Provencal countryside, midway between Arles and Avignon, there is a chance that you will be walking through a landscape by Vincent Van Gogh.

The artist set up his easel under the plane trees on the Boulevard Mirabeau . . . in the olive groves bordering the entrance to the asylum of St. Paul de Mausole . . . at the window of his cell opening on a panorama of yellow corn fields, writhing cypresses and pale mountain crests . . . and in the gardens outside his door where he found his now-famous bed of irises.

This is the centennial year of Van Gogh's death by suicide and we were drawn back to St. Remy, as we have been in the past, because of its association with the great Impressionist.

The artist spent a year at the asylum as a voluntary patient after mutilating his left ear with a razor in reaction to a violent quarrel with Paul Gauguin, his guest in Arles. His desperation was evident in a letter to his brother, Theo: "I should like to be shut up for a while as much for my own peace of mind as for others'." And to a friend: "I'm not fit to govern myself and my affairs."

His stay at the former medieval monastery, often under close confinement, was the cruelest and yet perhaps the most creative year of his life.

Although Van Gogh was in Arles three months longer than in St. Remy, there is little left to connect him to the former city. The locales for many of his most famous paintings--the yellow house, the pool room, the sidewalk cafe and the railroad station--were blown to rubble during World War II.

But in St. Remy, 12 miles away, the landscapes and other subjects of his work look almost exactly as they did 100 years ago. Many of the same buildings still stand along the Boulevard Mirabeau, where Van Gogh and Edouard Manet stood together at their easels to paint a work crew repaving the street.

It is only a short walk from the town center to St. Paul's, where one can photograph scenes closely resembling the Dutch master's paintings.

But most visitors to St. Remy stop short of the asylum to visit the Greco-Roman town of Glanum or fly past it on Route D5 on their way to the nearby ruins of the ancient citadel of Les Baux. In contrast to the crowds at those always popular tourist attractions, we had St. Paul's to ourselves in late April, except for three art students who, after much debate, had set up their easels in the precise positions Van Gogh had once chosen.

To our disappointment, the bronze statue of the artist along the wall of the cloister was no longer there. A sign hanging from the plinth read: "This sculpture by Zadkine was taken by vandals in the night on Jan. 29 or 30, 1989."

In harsh weather or when his doctor thought he was too unstable to leave his cell, Van Gogh spent long hours painting the now-familiar vistas beyond his one small window. But his cell is no longer open to the public. Another mental patient occupies it now.

One of his first canvasses from St. Remy, "Irises," is now on permanent exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. The museum is thought to have spent between $50 and $60 million for this work by an artist who sold only one painting in his own lifetime--to the sister of a friend--and who was constantly on the verge of poverty. Nor did the director of St. Paul's think much of Van Gogh's work while he was still alive. A request by the head sister, Epiphane, to hang one of his paintings in the asylum was peremptorily denied.

Despite the lyricism of "Irises" and other early works at St. Paul's, the artist was in constant fear of his fellow inmates. "One is always hearing howls and cries like beasts in a zoo," he wrote Theo. One patient tried to attack Van Gogh physically whenever they met.

Another of the artist's fears--that his insanity was a recurring and permanent affliction--had a dramatic and somber effect on his work. His interest in human subjects at Arles--the Zouave soldier, the family Roulin, Madame Ginoux--frequently gave way at St. Remy to the convulsions of nature, such as the madly whirling nebulae as shown in "The Starry Night."

The Office of Tourism in St. Remy, just a block off the town square, publishes a free brochure with a map and color photographs that enable the visitor to match Van Gogh's landscapes with the terrain as it is today.

Among the sites are the field of poppies along the outer wall of St. Paul's, the asylum and its cloister, the olive fields, the white flanks of Les Alpilles--the Little Alps--and the quarry on a hillside above the hospice.

Early in his stay at St. Remy, Van Gogh wrote that " . . . it's fun working in rather savage places, where one has to wedge the easel in between the stones to prevent everything being blown over by the wind."

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