Van Gogh's Footprint

Saint-Paul Asylum and Saint-Remy-de-Provence

To the provincial townsfolk who evicted him, he was known as fou roux, the redheaded madman, who severed his own ear. In 1889, after suffering from alienation, hallucinations and crippling depression, Van Gogh committed himself to the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. He remained there for a year, painting over 150 canvases, some of which are amongst his most well-known work. He died two months after leaving the asylum, of a two-day-old, self-inflicted bullet wound to the stomach.

This Summer I visited Saint-Remy-de-Provence, the home of Nostradamus. The town has a timeless and tenacious spirit that is rooted in its traditional agricultural practices and untarnished landscape. The evocative trees, bent-over farmers and maddening blue skies that Van Gogh devoted himself to, have remained unchanged for hundreds of years, as if painted on a breathing canvas. From June to August the heat can be stifling with relief only from a violent northerly wind known as the Mistral. This unique gale, which has been known to knock people off their feet, is the secret to Provence’s fertile land and climate.

A one-way road encircles the centre of town, which is a pedestrian maze of cobblestone lanes, lined with restaurants, providors, art galleries and homeware stores. Of an evening, the bars and restaurants are filled with farmers and artists, sucking back wine and cigarettes. The town is also popular with unassuming celebrities and royalty, whose country homes are sprinkled throughout Saint-Remy’s surrounds.

A fifteen-minute walk from the centre of town is the Saint-Paul Asylum, now known as The Van Gogh Clinic.

The enchanting, 11th Century mansion is surrounded by wildflowers and olive groves, and borders the ruins of an Ancient Roman civilization known as Glanum. Half the mansion and its grounds are devoted to the life and art of Vincent Van Gogh, yet hidden behind vine-plastered walls are the hospital’s current patients, whose mental anguish is reflected in the patient artwork that hangs in the tourist corridors. By creating this visual and confrontational correspondence between patient and tourist, the journey through the asylum is intended to unhinge – never allowing one to forget the dark recesses of the mind and those who, only feet away, suffer within them.

A space can be stained like spilled coffee on lace. People talk about it when they walk through the damp corridors of Auschwitz or the time-capsuled houses in Port Arthur. It’s something subjective, oppressive, heavy on the heart and lungs. I felt it walking into Van Gogh’s old bedroom; something, like a footprint, had been left behind. It’s a stark room with a single bed, lone desk and a barred, cell-like window. Before he was granted permission to paint in the fields, Van Gogh would sit for hours at this window, painting the vegetable garden below, ignoring the bars that enclosed him.

After exploring the asylum’s antique washroom and gift shop, I again passed his bedroom. A girl was standing in the middle of the room: her head cocked, lips pouting and a finger against her temple in the shape of a gun. With her free hand she took a selfie. She was no more than 12, in a little white dress with pink ballet slippers. On seeing me, she dropped her pose and left to rejoin her parents. I watched as she slid under her daddy’s arm. Secured, she then turned and stared at me, as if challenging me to deny that I too had been thinking such thoughts. And perhaps she was right. That which attracts one to the asylum of a tormented genius, does revel in the realm of the grotesque and the ghoulish. And to walk such private and afflicted corridors one must be willing to admit to the transience of one’s own mental health – if only, not to completely exploit the memory of a lonely artist and his savaged soul.

After leaving the asylum I took the Van Gogh Walk: a 2km path through gardens and back alleys that is littered with copies of his art work, posted where each are believed to have been painted. I walked, the sun shone and the bees buzzed.

mildred issue