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Destination: France : IMPRESSIONS OF VAN GOGH : A Pilgrimage to the Place Where the Artist Died and a Look Into the Creative Soul

August 21, 1994|PHILIP BROOKER P.B...BD: Brooker is an artist with the Miami Herald. His paintings have been displayed in galleries in Paris, New York and Miami

AUVERS, France — I am obsessed with the life of Vincent van Gogh. This started when I was 11 years old and saw the movie version of Van Gogh's life, "Lust for Life," starring Kirk Douglas.

My obsession has taken me around the world--to New York, Los Angeles, London, Geneva, Paris, Edinburgh--looking at private and public collections that include his work. But most often, I have traveled to Auvers, a small village north of Paris where Van Gogh spent the last few months of his life. Last autumn I made the most important pilgrimage yet: a visit to the small room where he lived, which opened to the public last year.

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I was 37. Van Gogh was 37 when he died.

Auvers is about 32 miles north of Paris. But despite being so near a big city, one feels completely in the countryside in the Oise valley. It is a simple village of a few thousand people, typical of countless others in France. The center is dominated by a few shops and cafes, with narrow streets lined with neat houses whose window boxes are filled with geraniums. Notre Dame, the Roman Catholic church made famous by a Van Gogh painting, stands near the edge of town.

Visitors come to Auvers for one reason only, and that is Van Gogh. Nearly all of the places he painted during his short stay still exist, and familiar paintings come frequently to mind as one wanders about town. Thanks to the largess of designer Yves St. Laurent, the town is dotted with signs that point out the real scenes and juxtapose them with the paintings. Otherwise, there are few other obvious reminders that Van Gogh stayed here. T-shirt shops are, thankfully, nowhere to be found.

I always make my way to the church first. Van Gogh painted this church, creating a masterpiece that matched the words he wrote about it: "The building appears to be violet-hued against the sky of a simple deep blue color, pure cobalt; the stained glass windows appear as ultramarine blotches; the roof is sand with the pink glow of sunshine on it."

I never go inside the church anymore; for me there is but one view of it, and that is the view that Van Gogh painted.

A rusty sign across from the church points up the hill toward Van Gogh's tomb; the small winding road leading to the cemetery. On my way up, I always look back to see the village and the Oise River valley. The view has hardly changed over the decades, and it takes little imagination to see what this place looked like in Van Gogh's day.

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This time, as I rounded the bend heading for the cemetery, I noticed on this familiar horizon a new horror. Instead of the vicious, darting crows I had come to expect, I saw something far more awful: tourists. I must admit that I, too, was there as a tourist. Still, for me the area is sacred, and I detested sharing it with a horde descended from a pair of belching buses.

Indeed, tourists were everywhere, scattered all over the fields like bad brush strokes dressed in fluorescent track suits, hats and sneakers. The whole scene looked like a very bad Impressionist painting executed in neon colors by someone far more lunatic than Van Gogh.

With the worldwide publicity about the opening of his room, this was bound to happen; in fact, more than half a million have visited since the opening last September of l'Auberge Ravoux, where the room is located. I will just have to accept it.

Oh, Vincent, what have you done . . . ?

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The pack of tourists finally moved from the cemetery to investigate other wonders, leaving me to place my flowers on Van Gogh's grave. (I always leave something--irises or a paintbrush.)

The grave is simple, situated in a typical French cemetery with a high wall surrounding it. Next to it is that of his brother, Theo, who died just six months after Vincent--they say, poetically, of a broken heart. Theo's wife planted upon the graves a sprig of ivy from the garden of his doctor, Paul Gachet, and today the two simple headstones are still swathed in dark green leaves.

From the graveyard, one can easily wander across the fields to where he painted one of his last and most famous paintings, "Crows in the Wheat Field." It was there that I met up with the gang of tourists. Cameras flashed in every direction. A gentle rain had begun to fall again; the tourists let out a cry of dismay.

"Go, go," I said under my breath. I longed to have this place to myself.

Suddenly all was quiet. The rain had given way to a light drizzle and then finally a fine mist, which covered the fields like a spectacular dry ice show. I touched the soil with my hand and started to walk in the footsteps that Van Gogh must have taken many times before as I made my way down the slope and back into town.

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Van Gogh arrived here in May, 1890, by train. He walked up the gentle slope, past the home owned by the artist Daubigny, along the winding Rue des Vessenots and finally to Gachet's house.

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