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The International Writers Magazine: Understanding Van Gough:

Van Gogh’s Spicy Little Secret
David Russell

"That’s been so done.  You're wasting your time!",  was the not so subtle reaction  from my ten year tenured, LACMA touring docent, wife, in reaction to a Van Gogh story idea I had based on pictures taken in the Fall of 1999  when we toured Southern France, "Following Van Gogh". Actually it was a specific photograph taken in Arles, our trip’s take off city, that sparked my thought line.  Just as it was, one hundred-and-ten years earlier, when something in Arles sparked Van Gogh to write his Paris-based art dealer brother, Theo, “that Arles would be a wonderful place to begin an art school in the South."

What was it that so attracted Van Gogh?  One clue was in photos taken 6 am one morning, just as the first beams of sun were bringing to life the colors of the morning market, especially the spices. Laid out on a table top, tray by tray, the array of multi-colored spices had suddenly turned into a spectrum from deep, rich orange to luscious lemon,   yellow. It dawned on me as I looked at the photos, that those glowing early   morning spices were something Van Gogh saw each and every morning. Looked at it up close, each spice seed and berry resembled a little dab of paint.  But, stepback and they became a harmony,  a mélange of design – layer after layer of color –   in what to me could easily become a pallet of sunflower toned paints. That’s what I believe Van Gogh recognized in Arles, just before he actually did create, what I call his sunflower pallet. Another photo taken out the window of a moving bus shows one of the sunflower fields, which ringed the city.  Millions of individual, eye-popping,  sunflowers forming a single, unbroken panorama of color.

Seeing those pictures again, I remember thinking back then, that the overall effect was almost psychedelic! Certainly hypnotic! And, I realized that I was cleverly   talking myself into believing I had really uncovered the  spicy little secret behind Van Gogh’s change of palette in Arles. It was good an answer as anyone else’s.

Especially when later I learned that Van Gogh had other secrets to share as well. As we left Van Gogh in Arles and headed for our Oise river cruise, with an enroute bus stop to visit the Avignon Palais des Papes, I was totally unaware of any of this.

If we had been living in a parallel time frame, while our tour was exploring the French Pope’s castle, Van Gogh’s life had become total  Sturm and Drang. His letter suggesting the opening of an art school to brother Theo, was the key to  the chaos. Though he did find a suitable house with studio and painted the exterior sunflower yellow, the only artist who showed was Paul Gauguin, thanks to brother Theo’s bribing him by agreeing to become Gauguin’s Paris agent. From day one, there were screaming arguments, culminating into almost open warfare when Gauguin brazenly painted Van Gogh as awkward and confused while addressing a sunflower still-life. Vincent screamed, “It was becoming mad! And so it went. Until, in a final fit of pique, Van Gogh cut off his ear.    

That restored a short period of peace as in a drunken moment they presented the ear to a bar lady, spurring the rumor of a Van Gogh romance. However, peace was short lived. Soon Gauguin went packing back to Paris.

Attempting to return sanity to his life, Van Gogh checked himself into the St. Remy sanitarium. There, on another bus stop, we caught up with him. Seeing nothing remarkable in either his room or from his iron-barred windows.  While there, Vincent painted a number of interior sanitarium scenes, a self portrait and a sketch of himself at the hospital entrance.
We saw all. Our stay was short. Looking at another page of 1999 reflections, other positives began to percolate coming from Van Gogh’s Arles stay. It was in the initial glimpses of his newly-   constituted sun-flower kissed palette. You can see them in his  “Starry Night”,   a sun-flower still life and his painting of La Jardin de La Maisor DeSante A Aires,seen on a nearby tourist sign.
From St. Remy, a now healthier Van Gogh was traveling again, heading north,painting as he went. It was one those “road” paintings that clued me into another Van Gogh secret.  In his painting, “The Bridge at La Point de l’Anglois”, Vincent’s take was to show off his new sunflower palette.  To my camera, the bridge is dark and with the white- washed house behind it, I could have shot it with black & white film.
Viewing the actual bridge and his painting of it, convinced me from that point   forward, whatever Van Gogh painted, I would take my photos in black & white, allowing Vincent and his colorful palette full stage. Bless him the concept. Even though our time in Auvers was limited, I was able to put 2 paintings to the test.

Avignon, “Palais des Papes”, home of the French Pope, was an interesting stop. In preparation for the Millennium celebration, repair work was everywhere. In one hall, my eye caught an Old Testament ceiling; Hebrews with Torahs in hand. Just under it, beautifully sun-lit New Testament stained glass windows. For hundreds of years they’ve been together in blissful harmony. Were it only that life copied art.     

My story/photo book contains the usual. The most interesting photos are a handsome quay sign “Auvres Oise”,“village de peintres”,  showing threegroups of golden painted Van Gogh style houses, each topped with a golden roof. Then, there’s the Auberge Ravoux, Van Gogh's rooming house. The windows of his second floor rooms open above the street level restaurant of the same name. There, pay-as-you-enter, is a tiny room with limited memorabilia. A photo taken from a distance, shows the lovely La Jardin De Daubigny, with Van Gogh’s rendering on an adjoining tourist sign. Brancusi’s sculpture – placed at a prominent park setting - portrays a determined-faced, hale and vigorous Van Gogh,   shouldering his pack with protruding easel, striding in search of a likely subject.

Finally, after a good walk, we found his likely subject.  His final subject. Final canvas. The tourist sign shows a picture of a field with its upper third, a darkominous sky  flocked with black birds and – true to his Arles vision – the lower two- thirds, a field of golden wheat.On the path returning from this site, Van Gogh shot and mortally wounded himself.

What motivated his suicide? Auvers-sur-Oise was wonderfully productive for him; he completed 71 canvasses in 80 days. One painting, The Church at Arles, was a test of my theory, photographing in black and white to contrast with Van Gogh’s color. My church is four black and white photos mounted in what my dear friend and fine artist, Patrick Walsh,  would call a “Photomosaic”. Van Gogh’s palette rendered his version in lighter, warmer mid-tones, adding one small red roof for interest. Vincent’s Town Hall, painted on a holiday, July 14, 1890, places the building aconsiderable distance from his easel. He added two small, yet prominent trees   much closer to his easel, one on each side of the building, each holding red and blue   streamers with a red & white target shaped close-up decoration, plus seven others hanging on some kind of wire.  

Van Gogh completely eliminated an oval garden to reveal a red door. In place of the cobble stones is an impressionistic, red and gold cobble stone look-alike in multi sized streaks. The steeple belfry looks like a Disney artist drew it; it’s almost cartoony. Talk about artistic discretion. On my next to last Auvers page, I believe I found one additional Van Gogh secret. He may have created scenes where there was no scene. In this case, his painting isentitled, “L’Escalier D Auvers”.

What Van Gogh shows in his painting are two nuns in black habits walking towards us on a country road, which has been painted as seven   colored lanes. In foreground left are two young ladies wearing long white dresses with black sashes, walking away from us. To their left is a garden which Van Gogh has balanced, by placing a second created garden to the right of the nuns.  And, right behind the nuns is a receding landscape with a stone wall. In the background,   he shows a vertical hill, on which at the top, he has placed a white house. Scene left, to reach the house, Van Gogh has painted a long, winding banistered wooden   stairway. That is his painting.  What did I see in the clearing where Van Gogh made   this painting? A small, perhaps, 16 step wooden stairway with a small tree trunk   Banister, bottom to top. In a completely separate location is a gabled stone faced   home and nearby, a second home. Finally, a standing alone stone wall.

Tell me, how did Van Gogh ever make his canvass, from what he – and I – saw?  Talk about an artist’s creative discretion and (S-h-h!) his secrets? But, I had no way of knowing when I shot the photograph of the two churchyard,   leaf-covered headstones where Vincent and his brother Theo lie, was that Vincent had one final secret, which we saw come to life later on a street in the crowdedMontmartre sector of Paris.

© David Russell July 2008

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