Today was incredibly moving. Just on the outskirts of St-Remy, a 20-minute amble from the centre of town, lies the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum where, for 12 months in 1899, a deeply troubled Vincent Van Gogh was a voluntary patient. During his stay here, Van Gogh painted over 150 works, many of them now iconic and decorating the walls of the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and countless student flats around the world.
Saint-Paul remains a working asylum, with a highly regarded art therapy programme amongst the treatments it offers, but for the small fee of six euro you can walk through the cloisters to the gardens and see a small, thoughtful exhibition about Van Gogh, his illness and how it was treated while at Saint-Paul. You can also see a replica of what would have been his room.
The gardens are simple but beautiful, with a wild field of poppies at the rear of the building keeping company with rows of late-bloomer lavender. The cool, calm stone of the cloisters, with its rose bushes and carefully tendered garden was everything that you might imagine respite, as a habitable space, to be. It felt peaceful, sheltered and safe, yet open and full of light. I was surprised how much it moved me.
And the exhibition upstairs, mostly a lot of a wall text, went to great lengths to explain Van Gogh’s illness, how it was treated, how it would have been treated today and the history of the asylum and how it has treated both those with “the misfortune to fall into madness” and the “miserable who have lost their reason” over the years.
It would be over-reaching and insensitive to walk away from Saint-Paul and say you had a sense of what it was like for Van Gogh to be there, but having even just the vaguest impression of the disorienting mania of his mental illness brings so much to the viewing of his work. To see the energy and dynamacy of his brushwork and his use of vivid, force-of-life colour, it both enriches and complicates his so very beautiful work.
Nearby Arles is also part of Van Gogh’s story – he was resident here before relocating to St-Remy – and that afternoon, at Max’s behest (this was his day after all) we drove to Arles for an amble. For LB the pleasure was almost exclusively in getting to say, all day, “Let’s go to Arles, darls”, which didn’t get annoying AT ALL.
Arles is a funny place, dusty and a little tired – none of the prettiness of so many other Provence towns, which means none of the tourists – but it has an elegant sort of scruffiness nonetheless, and some obligatory medieval rubble.
We had a couple of hours moseying about here, dodging the intermittent rain, before retreating back to St-Remy and the cheese.
Tomorrow is our last full day here before heading to Nice and we’re going to drive up Mont Ventoux, which is some crazy big mountain that features in the Tour de France and that occasionally kills people silly enough to attempt riding up it.
Looking forward to that, though I’ll be staying in the car.