France, Arles & the inspiration of van Gogh (& me)


Around the French city of Arles, the hot summer is causing sunflower fields to wither. Scorched, with drooping heads, they should be dry enough to be harvested by the end of September so their seeds can be crushed into sunflower oil.

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But in the ancient city itself, another sunflower crop is thriving. There are bright yellow flowers on tablecloths and oven mitts, T-shirts and postcards.

Given its long human history, it still fascinates me that this pretty town on the banks of the Rhone in Provence is shaped by a Dutch painter who came here in 1888, only stayed 15 months and was considered mentally ill and rather avoided by locals.

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Vincent van Gogh sculpture in the hospital in Arles.  Vincent van Gogh came here and painted The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles in 1889.
camera iconVincent van Gogh sculpture in the hospital in Arles. Vincent van Gogh came here and painted The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles in 1889. Recognition: Stephen Scourfield/The Western Australian

Vincent van Gogh put Arles on the modern map (although it is perhaps less well known that Julius Caesar did the same on the Roman map, having founded the city in 46 BC).

Van Gogh painted four versions of the Sunflowers; one to welcome Paul Gauguin, who came here briefly to paint with him. They bathed in the beautiful light of Arles and van Gogh created 300 paintings and drawings here.

Arles inspired.

It inspired van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhone – that starry, starry night that in turn inspired Don McLean to write the song Vincent.

It inspired the Café Terrace at Night – and indeed the Café at Place du Forum still exists and is still a café. When Vincent painted it, the cafe’s walls were white (and remnants of them can still be seen on parts of the wall), but the streetlights cast the yellow hue we see in the painting. And today the cafe has been painted to match.

Around Arles there are panels with his paintings in the places where they were painted, including in the courtyard of the old Arles hospital (“L’Espace van Gogh”), which he visited several times, including one visit after cutting off part of his ear.

Arles Hospital.  Vincent van Gogh came here and painted The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles in 1889.
camera iconArles Hospital. Vincent van Gogh came here and painted The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles in 1889. Recognition: Stephen Scourfield/The Western Australian

For Arles, Vincent’s mental health also deteriorated. He went to the Saint Paul Asylum in nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence for a year and continued to paint, producing Irises, which Alan Bond would eventually buy for $53.9 million.

Vincent Van Gogh left Provence in 1889 and died a year later at the age of 37, allegedly from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Of course, he left all the work of his 444 days in Arles behind. And he also left these written words: “You will surely recognize me and write about me when I am dead and gone.”

A LIGHTNESS OF LIGHT

Arles also inspires me. It’s a place where I easily and instantly fall into reverie; where (quite oddly) I seem to have stopped moving and for the time I’m here the world is passing me by. I am silent and paused; focused and consumed. It has a deep place in me.

Maybe it’s charm – or just my desire to see it as charming.

Maybe it’s the light.

Art is commonplace in Arles.
camera iconArt is commonplace in Arles. Recognition: Stephen Scourfield/The Western Australian

Just as the post-impressionist painter was drawn to the bright light of this area. It borders the 900 km² of wetlands of the Camargue where the Rhone deposits mud and creates moisture and a landscape with reflective qualities.

Arles sits at the head of the Rhone Delta, just 40km drive north of Port Saint Louis du Rhone, where the river meets the warm, salty Mediterranean Sea.

As Vincent noted, the warm and bright southern light affects color differently than the cooler light further north in Europe.

My afternoon begins easy and lazy. I just wander, without too much plan. . . and Arles is perfect for that. I’m not in a group. The only direction I have is serendipity and the knowledge that meandering back down the side streets to the river will eventually bring me home.

It’s a smooth short black coffee.

There is French Perrier water at room temperature, slightly sparkling, “avec gaz”.

There is a baguette.

There is a red berry ice cream.

Vincent van Gogh's presence in a shop in Arles.
camera iconVincent van Gogh’s presence in a shop in Arles. Recognition: Stephen Scourfield/The Western Australian

My stroll through the back streets takes me past shuttered windows, dogs dozing on steps, and posters for photo exhibitions. A young man is taking pictures with a Rollei film camera. Another with a wood paneled plate camera, taking portraits of visitors and then developing them on site; Washing the imprints of chemicals in a bucket of water.

Photography is part of everyday life in Arles, which always seems to have small exhibitions, and the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival has been held every summer since 1970.

Van Gogh printed bags in a shop near the Colosseum in Arles.
camera iconVan Gogh printed bags in a shop near the Colosseum in Arles. Recognition: Stephen Scourfield/The Western Australian

I keep wandering, enjoying feeling leisurely, peaceful, and lazy—and enjoying the release that phone photography has brought me. After a career in gear, I feel liberated. (As good as they are, I’m actually relieved that I left my two new Canon R7 cameras and their lenses back in my room.)

I again notice the familiar words above the Hotel de Ville – the town hall on the Place de la Republique. “Liberte, egalite, fraternite.” Yes, I feel that again in my photography – in this relaxed and emancipated view of the world in general and on this hot summer afternoon in Arles in particular.

I am dreamy, sunflower yellow, pure light and a lightness of being.



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