SEPTEMBER 3 — Some places become synonymous with specific people, as the entire identity of the city or region — at least in the eyes of outsiders — comes to be defined by its association with a famous resident.
I have just returned from one such place: the ancient town of Arles in the south of France, where it is utterly impossible to escape the shadow of the celebrated Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Even the most art-averse student attending any European school becomes acquainted with the tale of Van Gogh, the archetypal mad genius whose inner torment led him to cut off his ear before dying, at the age of 37, due to an infection caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Famously, Van Gogh was Dutch, so Arles was not his hometown. He did not even visit the place at a young age, growing up in his native country before living and working in England, Belgium and Paris, eventually moving to Arles aged 35 in 1888, apparently with the intention of founding an art school.
And it was here in Arles, inspired by the deep blue skies and vivid golden wheat and purple lavender filled fields and rolling hills of beautiful Provence, that Van Gogh enjoyed his most prolific period as an artist.
It is estimated that he produced more than 300 paintings, watercolours and drawings during his stay in the town, including autobiographical pieces such as Café Terrace At Night, Van Gogh’s Chair, Bedroom in Arles and Starry Night Over The Rhone which are now instantly recognisable to art lovers all over the world.
Despite working at a fast and furious pace to create a succession of works which would later become recognised as masterpieces, fame and fortune did not come during Van Gogh’s lifetime.
Rather than being celebrated and feted, he was mocked and abused, eventually being forced out of his home — the Yellow House featured in one of his most famous pieces — by an angry group of locals who derided him as a “red-headed madman” shortly after he mutilated his own ear with a razor blade, apparently as part of a nervous breakdown caused by an argument with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin.
Hounded out of the town, Van Gogh had spent only 15 months of his troubled existence living in Arles and a little more than a year after his departure he was dead — unappreciated, poor, lonely and miserable until the very end.
It is a tragic tale, but the ironic transformation in Van Gogh’s reputation since his death has allowed Arles to similarly transform itself into something resembling a living theme park for the romanticised tortured artist.
Although he was much-maligned and eventually driven away from Arles during his lifetime, now the town makes a great deal of fuss about its most famous former resident, and you could spend literally the whole day in Arles immersed in activities bearing the name of the great man.
After admiring the view of the wide Rhone river by walking across the Van Gogh Bridge, you could visit the Van Gogh Foundation Museum, then refresh yourself with dinner at Le Café Van Gogh and finally spend the night in the Terminus et Van Gogh Hotel — and if you lived in the town, you could even send your children to the Van Gogh Middle School.
In a way, the belatedly superstar status granted to Van Gogh seems more than a little bit unfair. If only he had been afforded some of that adulation during his lifetime, perhaps he would have enjoyed a much happier life and wouldn’t have committed suicide in poverty at the age of 37.
It also under-sells the charms of Arles to regard it as simply an overblown homage to merely one man. The town is worthy of a visit in its own right, boasting quaint cobbled streets, picture book architecture, attractive walks along the banks of the Rhone and an impressive Roman amphitheatre which will next weekend host an annual bull-fighting festival. There is a lot more to Arles than Van Gogh.
To be fair, though, I suppose it’s not the fault of modern-day Arles and its inhabitants who work in the tourist industry that Van Gogh was shunned during his lifetime before later becoming regarded as one of the greatest and most influential artists in history.
And it’s only inevitable that visitors such as myself will first and foremost find themselves attracted to the tragic but compelling tale of a crazed genius who enjoyed — although that’s probably not the best word — his most creative period while living in the town.
The appeal of Van Gogh’s story above the other aspects of Arles’s history and present probably just reflects the instinctive magnetism of truly human stories. We might be interested in buildings and fallen empires and natural landscapes, but we are far more interested in other people and their stories.
In Van Gogh, we find both a warning and an inspiration. The genius; the madman. The power of creativity; the destructivity of mental imbalance.
We want to hear stories about people like him because they appeal to our common humanity, capturing our empathy and our sympathy. And in Arles, the story is right there in front of our eyes.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.