There is some sort of tangible invisible force that compels countless people to engage with the life and work of Vincent Willem Van Gogh (1853-1890). I have felt it in varying amounts on this trip. The strongest though, was when we were in Arles in the Provence region of southeastern France. Van Gogh arrived there from Paris in February 1888 and immediately fell in love with the light and color of the beautiful French countryside. He would go out in the intense sun, the blustering wind, and the torrential rain trying to capture the landscape. Weather did not deter him because art was his religion. He said once in a letter to his brother Theo, “When I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”
In Arles van Gogh created some of his most iconic pieces of artwork. Over his turbulent twelve month stay there he generated over 150 paintings and drawings. None of these original works are on display in Arles, but regardless of this the spirit of van Gogh can still be felt amidst the different monuments that he visited and painted within, and outside of the city.
Van Gogh painted things of great beauty. Not only landscapes with proud cypress trees and delicate poppies, but also places, objects and people that mainstream culture both of his day and ours would deem as ugly or unworthy of artistic representation. Like his predecessor Jean Francois Millet (a Realist painter) van Gogh saw a deep-seated goodness in the working class people and wanted to communicate that through his art. In many ways van Gogh was just as broken and destitute as the men, women and children he painted and drew. As such, it is easy for some people to write him off as a mentally unstable man who cut off his ear and happened to create some good art that we connect with. But with every artist we must proceed past the initial veil that we encounter in order to understand the complete story.
I feel like I have passed through that veil with van Gogh and with the other artists I have encountered on this trip so far. In doing so I have learned that all human beings have the desire to be creative in some way, and in creating they grasp some sense of meaning for themselves and perhaps for a greater community they are a part of.
The following is a poem I wrote during our transit day to Arles. I think it captures something of the spirit of van Gogh.
As They Watched
There is blood drenching the fields.
Crimson, stretched over the long grass.
We walk through it,
And fall to our knees,
And weep from our hearts.
As the cypresses watch.
Just as they watched Vincent,
In the scorching heat of the day.
There is blood on our hands.
Crimson stains from the long, long grass.
We wash and we wash,
It will never come off.
We scrub and we scrub,
It will never come out.
Arles has marred us.
St. Remy has scarred us.
Auvers-Sur-Oise has murdered us.
And the Color,
Have redeemed us.
They have restored our spirits,
And yours as well,
– David J. McCallum