Arles: Van Gogh’s CafeTerrace at Night – then and now

Ever wanted to put yourself in the picture? It was evening and the sky was precisely the deep Prussian Blue that Van Gogh portrayed in his painting of “the Café Terrace at Night”. The lights under the awning reflected warmly in the wine glasses as we toasted our meal and our time in Province. It was Autumn in Arles, and the smell of lavender mingled with the delicious food smells. It hadn’t changed much since Vincent (yes we’re on first name terms now) painted the café at around the same time of year in 1888.

 

Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

In those days, the café terrace was lit by gas lamps beneath the awning, as the evening brought out the vibrant stars. Van Gogh did the painting as a companion piece to his Night Café in which he depicted the interior of this same cafe.

Van Gogh wrote about this painting to his sister Willemien Van Gogh on 14 September 1888:

“I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green.12 I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.”

– [Source:  www.vangoghletters.org].

There were other cafés nearby on the plaza that once formed part of the Roman Forum here, and over the ten days we stayed there, we sampled most of them. Here, the steak was tasty and the Beaujolais formed the perfect accompaniment, along with the traditional baguette. A cool wind blew, but we didn’t mind. The occasional scooter clattered past on the cobble stones  – damp after a recent shower – leaving an oily smoke in its wake. It is a real place. Yet somehow the damp ground added vibrancy to the colours, rendering the scene more painterly. I can see why he chose this town, this part of the south of France. It is the light.

 

Van Gogh's CafeTerrace at Night

[source: photographed by me from a print erected at the spot from which he painted the cafe.]

The cafe itself – as you can see – is still there on the Place du Forum in Arles, just down the road from the Roman Amphitheatre which is still in use today for concerts and bull fights. Sharon and I had a wonderful dinner there – very French – with a nice carafe of wine. It was a magic evening 🙂

As for the actual painting? You can find Café Terrace at Night on display at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.

Bridges across the Camino and across the world

Bridges. We cross them routinely, often barely noticing they are there. Yet without them, we would have to take long and circuitous detours or make dangerous crossings. So I like to pause sometimes and reflect on the bridge builders, whether physical or metaphorical, and nod my thanks to them for making my journey easier and safer.

Many kinds of bridges

In my working life, I would, at least once a year, board a plane and fly across the globe to talk face-to-face with my counterparts in other countries. And each time I was asked, why not just do a video conference with them? Why do I have to meet them face-to-face? My answer had variations on a theme. And that theme was about building firm relationships between the people of that country and our own. It was only partly about the exchange of formal information, but it was far more about building trust. And that trust was built by sharing a meal, having a joke, by spending informal time with them. And in that process, walking a little in their shoes, and they in mine.

In many ways, the aircraft formed a bridge between our cultures, just as surely as if I had walked across a physical bridge from one side of a river to the other, as pilgrims have done on the Camino for a thousand years. As you enter Santiago de Compostela, you will see inscribed in brass letters the phrase “Europe was built on the pilgrim road to Santiago.” Similarly, I have written elsewhere about the painter Van Gogh and the way he built his own bridge to the print-makers of Japan – notably Hiroshige. The influence of those Japanese prints transformed how painters like Van Gogh saw the world, by literally gaining a new perspective.

Van Gogh’s bridges

I built my own bridge to Van Gogh’s work by seeing the bridges that inspired him in Arles (also a starting point for one of the Camino routes) – the railway bridge near the Yellow House, and the Langlois Bridge across the canal, as well as the Edo Bridge in Tokyo, through seeing the replica in the Edo-Tokyo Museum which inspired Hiroshige, and then Van Gogh.

pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Why are bridges special?

Bridges are special places, whether a few flat stones used to cross a stream, perhaps placed in Neolithic times, or stone spans built by Roman engineers 2000 years ago, or by later medieval builders, and modern freeway spans and great suspension bridges. They are special because they help us cross over. They help us cross safely from here to there over an abyss or a raging torrent, across an absence of firm ground.

Bridges are a place between places, and once you step onto a bridge, you too, are, for that moment, in between. Once you step onto that bridge, you have left your safe homeland, and you are already on that journey to the next place, to another culture, or another town or village. Bridges enable you to do this despite the storm or the deep water, or the treacherous ford.

Where walls enclose “us” from “them”, bridges make more people into “us”. The idea of Europe was made possible because a very significant number of people had for a thousand years crossed national borders and walked as global citizens, until there was enough inter-mixing of cultures to enable Europeans to imagine an “us” that stretched beyond mere national boundaries. Recently those ideas have come to be challenged, with some talking of building walls, and others retreating behind a moat. So it was significant that Pope Francis re-emphasised that it is better to build bridges than walls. What he was saying is that it is better for people to be connected and to build understanding with each other, than to retreat into a narrow, nationalistic view of society. And the evidence of this lies on the pilgrim road to Santiago. So important were bridges to the Romans and early Christians that the Pope even holds a special title: ‘The Great Bridge Builder’ – Pontifex Maximus – or Pontiff for short.

Bridges on the Camino Frances

For medieval pilgrims en route to Santiago in Spain, the journey was long and difficult – even more so than it is today. There were regular toll collectors, who often charged extortionate rates – even though they were only supposed to charge merchants. There were many rivers to cross, either by treacherous fords, by ferries, or on half-maintained Roman bridges. And at times there were bands of thieves lying in wait at the crossing points for unwary and road-weary travellers.

Puenta la Reina

Puenta la Reina

The town is named after the so-called ‘Queen’s Bridge’ – Puenta la Reina. It was originally commissioned by Queen Dona Mayor, wife of Sancho III in the late C11th, as pilgrims had long complained that the river crossing was dangerous at the best of times, and impassable at worst.

 

Puenta la Reina

Here at the confluence of the French Way and the Arragonne Way, Pilgrims had also suffered from bands of robbers. When it was built, the bridge had three defensive towers, one of which featured the Renaissance image of the Virgin of Puy, or Txori (meaning ‘bird’ in the Basque language), which is kept in the parish church of St. Peter.

According to the Navarra tourist guide page, there is a story:

“…that a bird used to visit the image every day, removing the cobwebs with its wings and washing the Virgin’s face with its beak after collecting water from the river Arga.”

This is one of the best maintained of the finest medieval bridges in Spain. And it remains in use to this day – though just for pedestrian traffic. One of the remaining defensive towers can be seen at the town end of the bridge.

Roman bridge

Roman bridge

Not far out of Puenta la Reina there is a small Roman bridge, still in use today, albeit that it is in poor condition and is approached down a steep and rocky path suitable only for foot traffic.

Burgos

Burgos

At the entrance to the city of Burgos, lies the Puenta de Santa Maria which dates back to the C14th. You can still see the impressive Arco de Santa Maria or St Mary’s Arch – a defensive structure forming one of the original gates of the city, and part of the original city wall. This city marks the start of Stage VI of the Codex Calixtinus – the medieval codex on which the UNESCO world heritage route of the Camino Frances was based.

Bridge of Arre de Trinidad

Bridge of Arre de Trinidad

The medieval bridge over the Rio Ulzama (a tributary of the River Arga) leads to possibly the oldest continuously operating albergue – part of the medieval monastery and hospice of the Basilica de la Sanctisima Trinidad de Arre. The hamlet has been a strategic crossing point for the river since Roman times and the place is rich in history.

Puenta de Orbigo

Puente de Orbigo

Puenta de Orbigo is one of the longest medieval bridges in Spain, built in the C13th and crossing the floodplain of the Rio Orbigo. The bridge is built on the foundations of an earlier Roman bridge. The town on the far side is called Hospital de Orbigo. – the latter named after the Knights Hospitaller of St John who built a pilgrim’s hospital there. The long causeway leading onto the bridge is known as the Paso Honroso or ‘path of honour’ named for a jousting tournament that took place there in 1434. The story behind it is in the classic Romance chivalry tradition:

“In the Holy Year of 1434 a knight from Leon, Don Suero de Quiñones, scorned by a beautiful woman, threw down the gauntlet to any knight who dared to pass as he undertook to defend the bridge against all comers. Knights came from all over Europe to take up the challenge. Don Suero successfully defended the bridge for a month until the required 300 lances had been broken, and his honour restored. Whereupon he proceeded to Santiago to give thanks for his freedom from the bonds of love.” – Brierley’s Guide

This story may have been part of the inspiration behind Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nonetheless, this bridge and its Roman predecessor formed part of the cattle route to the coast, facilitating trade and commerce along the route.

Santo Domingo – the Bridge Builder

Santo Domingo de la Calzada, (1020-1109  – Saint Dominic of the Roads – is said to have built one of the first stone bridges across the River Oja around 1044. He was known more as a civil engineer than as the monk to which he aspired, but his efforts in clearing forests and draining swamps as well as constructing bridges and roads on behalf of the pilgrims earned him his place in the pantheon. He, together with his contemporaries, St Gregorio Ostiense and San Juan de Ortega formed one of the first teams of engineers of roads and bridges. The story goes that they met together in Logroño around 1040 and decided to devote themselves to improving the path through La Rioja and Navarra for the pilgrims travelling to Santiago between La Calzada and Logroño.

By clearing the undergrowth there were fewer hiding places for thieves, the road would enable them to cross the swamp more easily, and the bridge across the River Oja completed the work. While there are historical records for the existence of Santo Domingo and San Juan de Ortega, there is little evidence that St Gregorio Ostiense actually existed – he appears to have been a convenient, if somewhat legendary, figure, to make the team a holy trinity.

Whatever the truth, there is little doubt that the efforts to upgrade the infrastructure in the C11th meant a safer passage for the pilgrims at a time when Sancho III was seeking to push the Moors further south and ultimately out of the Kingdom of Spain.

Sarria bridge

And with safer passage came pilgrims in their thousands, many settling along the road and establishing French towns (known as villafranca). And to service the growing number of pilgrims, larger churches and cathedrals were built – with particularly notable constructions of Burgos and Leon cathedrals – both masterful examples of French Gothic style. And in the process, they brought an exchange of ideas that transcended national boundaries, just as Van Gogh brought a Japanese aesthetic to Europe through a painting of a bridge, and in turn my own pilgrimage to Van Gogh’s places and to Santiago built a bridge between our modern world reaching back into the distant past.

 

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Melbourne – Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition

The view through the water wall at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia is reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting. The light refracts in strange ways and distorts the image of the people and the traffic outside. I was here to see the exhibition: Van Gogh and the Seasons, so the image I captured as I entered the gallery was remarkably appropriate.

Water wall NGV

Life often seems to run in cycles or circles, just as the seasons return in sequence year after year. This exhibition links Van Gogh’s life’s work to the seasons. Nature was something of a preoccupation since the Romantic movement, and the exhibition begins with etchings and prints from other artists showing how they were representing the seasons, nature and farm workers. Then we encounter a series of Japanese prints which seem to be echoed in Van Gogh’s style where he painted with heavy outlines and filled in the forms.

Autumn/Fall

In October 1884, Van Gogh painted Avenue of Poplars in Autumn at Nuenen in the Netherlands. The sombre mood of the autumn trees is reflected by the lone woman walking the otherwise deserted road, dressed in mourning clothes. The shadows of the trees seem to reach for her as she seems about to cross a threshold marking her exit from the farm or village.

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June/July of that year describing his approach to painting the different light of the seasons:

“…I think Summer is not easy to express; generally, at least often, a summer effect is either impossible or ugly, at least I think so, but then, as opposition, there is twilight…

Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.”

Avenue of poplars in Autumn

His Autumn Landscape at Dusk painted a year later is more nuanced in his treatment of light. He wrote to his brother of his admiration for those who can paint darkness while observing that even in the lowest light there are still hints of things going on to maintain interest in the mystery:

“…it’s perhaps not superfluous to point out how one of the most beautiful things by the painters of this century has been the painting of darkness that is still colour.” – Van Gogh letters 21 Apr 1885

I found myself drawn into this painting, led by the path and the leading lines of the trees into the pool of orange and yellow that indicated the last fading light of sunset, following the footsteps of the woman returning to the village. I have learned a lot about photographic composition by noting the devices used by painters through the centuries. Here the horizon is placed about one-third from the bottom, and the path one-third from the left. The subject woman is backlit, providing an outline of her form which helps to draw us on in her direction.

Autumn Landscape at Dusk

These two paintings of Autumn – each with a path through the trees and a lone woman – illustrate that, on revisiting the subject, Van Gogh had developed further in his style, and produced arguably a stronger painting as a result. Here, in the second painting, he tantalises us with hints of things happening in the darkness – darkness that is still colour. And in Van Gogh’s life, even at his darkest hours, there was still some light, some colour.

But the cycles of life, like the seasons, never quite return the same. It is less a like a circle; more like a spiral. Some call this the hermeneutic spiral, in which we seem to return, yet we have moved on in our lives; we are older, we know more, we have more experience. It is one reason that people often return to a place they have travelled to, and in that return, the place is subtly different, or our approach to it is different. And we notice different things from the last time.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus talks about this process when he says that we cannot step into the same river twice – time, like the waters of a river, moves on. Our experience of a place is altered by the very fact of seeing it again – we see it with fresh eyes.

Winter

The 1880s were a time of transition for art, and the growing fashion in the Netherlands – notably the Hague School – was focussed on outdoor painting and capturing a mood rather than bright colour. I loved the simplicity captured in this sketch of a woman digging in the snow. A few lines were sufficient to convey the back-breaking work and the stoic determination to maintain a meagre living in the depths of winter.

Woman with a fork in a Winter landscape

The sketch below is called: Sketch of miners in the snow: Winter and was one of a couple of “small rough sketches” he sent to Theo. It certainly didn’t look too rough to me!

Sketch of miners in the snow

Spring

I loved Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of the View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as it depicts a town quite similar to several towns we passed through on our Camino in Spain. The town here is about 50kms from Arles in the south of France – and in those days it was a five-hour horse coach ride to reach it. The town is in the Carmargue region, famous for its marshes and particular breed of horses. The town is on the Mediterranean. This visit served to cement his decision to stay in the south of France. I found the painting interesting for four reasons: Firstly, the bold use of monolithic blocks of colour – and the towns in that area actually do strike you like that. Secondly, the composition with the horizon on the Golden mean. Thirdly the cool-warm contrast between the rooflines and the sky and between the town and the blue-purple of the rows of flax plants and possibly grape vines in the foreground. Fourthly, I looked closely at the brush strokes and found that it appears that Van Gogh was left-handed – although there are no direct references to that, and Cezanne himself depicted Van Gogh with a brush in his right hand. But if you look closely at the brush strokes on the flax rows, they appear to be flicking up from right to left, rather than the other way round. I saw similar right-to-left markings in the way he cross-hatched his trees in other drawings.

View of Saintes Maries de la mer

Summer

In the summer of 1888, when Van Gogh had moved to Arles for one of his most productive periods, he painted a series on wheatfields and haystacks. This Farmhouse in Provence shows something of the intensity of light that he was able to capture. In this period he often mixed the colours straight on the canvas, giving the paint a vibrancy as the pigments are mostly unmixed, so they almost shine with their own light.

Farmhouse in Provence

And yes the local stone actually does have a pinkish hue – it is a volcanic rock used in many of the local buildings in that area. I am constantly amazed by the accuracy of Van Gogh’s eye for light and for accurate drafting. In many cases you can go to the same spot and easily identify the same buildings today – I did a series of ‘then and now’ photos in Arles that I’ll discuss in a later post. Of the flowers, Van Gogh wrote:

“I know very well that not a single flower was drawn, that they’re just little licks of colour, red, yellow, orange, green. blue, violet, but the impression of those colours against one another is nonetheless there in the painting as it is in nature.” – letter Van Gogh to his sister Willemien 31 Jul 1888

One of the most striking paintings is A Wheatfield with Cypresses which contrasts the golden wheat with the deep green of the cypress trees – planted as a wind break against the strong dry Mistral wind that blows off the mountains – and then the blue of the distant hills. This one was painted in September 1889 at Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh stayed at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum. This painting, so full of life and vigour, was painted just a year before his suicide. Somehow, in the turbulence of the clouds and waving cypress trees he depicts something of the turbulence and violence of the Mistral wind and perhaps reflects something of the turbulence in his mind at that time.

A Wheatfield with Cypresses

So Van Gogh’s life, like our own can be seen like the cycle of the seasons. Travel too, can be seen in this light – and like Heraclitus says – we never truly return to the same place.

The same is also true of our return home after we have travelled. Suddenly, we see our own place in a new light, we notice new things about it, and perhaps question or seek to change things in light of our travel. There may be no place like home, but there is especially no place like home when we have informed our experience of it through mindful travel.

I travelled to Melbourne quite specifically to see this exhibition – and was not disappointed – even having seen the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and several of his works in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Many of the paintings displayed were from private collections and this would be one of the very few public showings. With around 60 works it is well worth seeing. The Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, runs until 9 July this year.

[NB: I was fortunate that since most of the paintings had come from French museums, hand-held non-commercial photography was permitted – so the photos I’ve included here are ones I’ve taken at the exhibition.]

 

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