Thursday, March 5, 2020


Arles, beside the Rhone River in Provence, is chilly and dank and smells of onions in January, when the artist Van Stein and I roll in looking for the spirit of Vincent van Gogh. 

Van Gogh was a nocturnalist, who once described night as “more alive and richly colored than the day.” 

Some of his finest paintings, including “Starry Night” over St-Remy, are nocturnes.

The worlds most famous artist left his native Holland and lived in Arles for fifteen months because the color and sunlight of Provence suited his sensibilities and palette. 

He shared a little yellow house with another artistic genius, Paul Gauguin—until they bickered, Gauguin split to Tahiti, and Van Gogh’s dream of creating an artist salon collapsed. 

Vincent reacted—the day before Christmas Eve—by slicing off a piece of his ear for his favorite girl, Rachel, who worked as a prostitute above Café de lAlcazar. 

We do not have to search hard for Vincent in Arles. 

The blatant commercialism—based solely around Van Gogh—smacks us hard in the face. 

Vincents spirit is less visible and somewhat elusive.

The people of Arles did not like Vincents paintings. 

They did not like Vincent, either. 

Arles was a bullfighting town, with an impressive Roman coliseum, remnants of which remain. 

But Vincent has long over-shadowed the once famous Spanish matadors who passed through to torment and kill bulls.

Vincents self-mutilation frightened the people of Arles.  They already knew he was a nutcase.  But when he became a gory nutcase, they wanted him out.  A petition circulated demanding that nutty Vincent leave Arles.

Believing the people of Arles correct in their diagnosis, that he was nuts, Vincent committed himself to an asylum near St-Remy, fifteen miles away. 

He spent eighteen months (1888-89) as an asylum in-patient, during which he painted a nocturne of swirling stars over St-Remy, famously known as The Starry Night. 

Upon discharge from the asylum, Vincent returned to his native Holland and, soon after, slaked his thirst for life by killing himself. 

Maybe he did this because the people of Arles drove him out. 

Or maybe because no one anywhere appreciated his art.

Today, the people of Arles milk the most money they can out of Vincents fame. 

They have adopted him. 

Numerous souvenir shops and kiosks on every street and alley in Arles hawk posters and postcards and booklets and key chains of Van Gogh’s paintings. 

Everywhere you look in Arles, you see pictures of Vincents paintings—the same paintings people in Arles 150 years ago hated.  

The people of Arles sell Vincents name for money every way they can, every chance they get.  

Greed will not allow them to give up Vincents ghost.

Café de lAlcazar, which Vincent painted and made famous in another nocturne called The Night Cafe, is now called Café Vincent van Gogh. 

The irony.  

This is where Vincent would drink absinthe, a strong alcoholic beverage made with an herb called wormwood, a neurotoxin.

Absinthe became known as The Green Fairy because it turns a foggy green when mixed with water.

Van Stein and I study the old café from different angles. 

The artist is searching for inspiration. 

But he does not find it at Café Vincent van Gogh or on any of the streets adorned with Van Gogh imagery and knick knacks made in China. 

I take refuge from rain in a drab café that celebrates brave matadors and braver bulls.

Arles darkens early. 

In moist drizzle, we notice a carousel in a plaza adjacent to our hotel, the Julius Cesar, on Boulevard des Lices. 

No children sit upon the wooden pigs and wolves and bulls (in place of the usual carousel horses). 

This merry-go-round is open for business, but nobody seems to appreciate its illumination and unusual beauty, and so it stands forlorn, lighting up the dank darkness—an eerie, disquieting sight. 

“Thats it,” says Van Stein.  “Im going for my paints.”

Fifteen minutes later, the artist is poised before his field easel in a gazebo—a shield from the rain—about fifty feet from the carousel, dabbing at his palette, until the canvas before him dances with Vincents soul.

Neither of us utters a word as I study his picture. 

We both know what has happened:  

Vincents spirit is now immortalized in oil as a carousel.

Van Stein ventures out later that night in search of more inspiration, in case wed missed something. 

But there is nothing more to paint in this creepy place. 

Even the full moon won’t show its face. 

The people of Arles do not recognize Vincents spirit; only it’s potential as a money-spinner. 

Greed is what Arles is about. 

This was Vincents gift to Arles—or maybe his curse. 

People usually get what they deserve.

One thing is certain:  Vincent made Arles look more beautiful in his paintings than it is today.   

Arles should be re-named Van Gone-ville.