Although none of Van Gogh's paintings are now on show in the city of Arles, subsequent painters have created the 'absent square' in the town in his honour. Despite the fact that he stayed for fifteen months and produced more than 300 paintings over this time, the city of Arles has kept practically no artistic trace of Vincent Van Gogh's time here.
On the 20th February 1888, Vincent Van Gogh set foot in Arles for the first time. Arriving full of hope, he discovered in a flash the quality of the light in the south of France, and his paintings radically changed as a result. His presence in Arles, from the 21st February 1888 to the 3rd May 1889, coincided with the period when his colours and drawings resembled Japanese prints and the paintings of Gauguin, whom he so admired.
The landscape of Provence, with its blazing light, bright sunshine, sharp mountain ridges, cypress trees as black as night and twisted olive trees, triggered a sudden pictorial shift in Van Gogh that allowed his great genius to find expression, accompanied by an equally intense outburst of rationality.
The subjects that characterise this period (sunflowers, olive trees, tormented characters, minimalist bedroom, etc.) provide a symbolic reflection of the artist's state of torment, passion, despair and suffering, and his feeling of being overwhelmed. This period of inner turmoil paradoxically reinforced his vocation, and resulted in his desire to form a community of artists in Arles. This saw the light of day thanks to the creation of the Atelier du Midi (studio of the south), which Gauguin initiated.
However, just like the landscapes in his paintings, Vincent worryingly shifted away from the bright light as his outlook took a turn for the dark. His all-consuming sense of malaise found its epilogue in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he committed suicide on 20 May 1890.
"I wish that the artists could get together in Arles", Vincent confided in a letter to his brother, Théo, in the year 1888. In 1990, one hundred years after the death of the painter, Yolande Clergue decided to fill the vacuum left by Vincent and still palpable in Arles. The city held none of his works, and the places where he had lived had all been razed to the ground by bombing in the Second World War (his famous little yellow house, for example, can now only be seen in his paintings). Therefore, a decision was taken to make the painter's dream reality on the hundredth anniversary of his death. Supported by Jacqueline Picasso, then by Picasso himself, who kept in his wallet a newspaper account of the incident in which Van Gogh cut off his ear, Yolande Clergue asked Francis Bacon, in 1985, to create a piece with Vincent as the theme. Bacon's keen interest in the project (he even provided the poster for the exhibition) greatly encouraged Yolande, and little by little a collection of artists' works grew, based around the themes of Van Gogh's works and boasting paintings by David Hockney, François Bret, Antonio Saura, Bernard Muntaner, etc. Other artists chipped in with sculptures, photographs and music, and Christian Lacroix donated two models of his design, one based on sunflowers, the other taking up the theme of The Zouave.
Although the centenary itself was over in a flash, the city of Arles now has unique works dedicated to the memory of Vincent Van Gogh. The foundation also continues to organise many painting exhibitions; thus fulfilling the wish of having a family of artists around Vincent in this city of light.
Palais de Luppé 24 bis, rond-point des Arènes 13200 Arles, France.
Tel.: (+33) (0)4 90 49 94 04
Opening hours: from the 1st April to 31st October, daily from 10:00am to 7:00pm.
From the 1st November to 31st March, daily except for Mondays and Saturday mornings from 10:00am to 12:30pm and from 2:00pm to 5:30pm.
The foundation is Arles' way of paying tribute to the painter who called the city home between 1888 and 1890.© Stefan Altenburger