Monday, April 28, 2008

Visiting Arles

In response to a commenter's question (Hi, Margaret!), here's a post about visiting Arles, for you holidaygoers out there. I spent a week in May 2007, mainly focusing on van Gogh research but hitting other things too. A week is probably too long for most visitors, but there is plenty to see to occupy a few days.

VAN GOGH SITES: The yellow house, Rachel's brothel, and the night cafe of the Place Lamartine are all gone, victims of World War II. But there are other van Gogh related things to see: you can pick up a map with a self-guided walking tour at the tourist office on the Boulevard des Lices (near the Carousel). Posters around town mark the sites of some of the paintings, including a favorite of mine, Starry Night over the Rhone. The former hospital is now a cultural center (Espace van Gogh--ahh, the irony that it's named after him!), and the courtyard garden is recreated to look like Vincent's painting of it. The cafe in the Place du Forum painted by Vincent is still there, the space under its yellow awning now taken up by Vincent fans, not locals. (Tip from me to you: have a coffee or a drink here only.) The ancient cemetery known as the Alyscamps, painted by both Vincent and Gauguin (Gauguin doesn't have any posters around town, heehee), is a short walk outside the town center and worth a visit. Trivia: the McDonald's on Boulevard des Lices is filled with tile versions of van Gogh paintings (found this out by accident and was too embarrassed to take pictures!).

THINGS MEDIEVAL: The church of Sainte-Trophime on the Place de la République was the starting point of one of the medieval pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela and is worth seeing. The sculptures of the Last Judgment on the facade were recently cleaned and look great. Hotel le Cloitre, my hotel in Arles, is adjacent to Sainte-Trophime.

THINGS ROMAN: Can't get away from the Romans: the amphitheater, the theater, bits and pieces stuck into buildings around town. The fairly new ancient art museum outside the town center is fantastic and definitely worth visiting for anyone interested in ancient things. (Tip: Do not try walking there. You will not find it. Drive or take the public bus.) Tourist office has brochures for medieval things to see and Roman things to see. I'm hitting the high points here.

BEST MEAL IN TOWN: The Jardin des Arts across from the Museon Arlaten. Charming atmosphere, delicious food, not touristy (unlike every restaurant on the Place du Forum). I ended up eating here three times 'cause it's so good. (Twice I had the sublime farfalle ortolana pasta. Desserts are amazing.)

OTHER THINGS TO DO: The Museon Arlaten is worth seeing for anyone interested in Provençal folk culture. The young ladies serving as guards wear 19th century style traditional Arlésienne dress, which ended up being part of my research! On Saturday mornings, a big market takes over the Boulevard des Lices: food items, local crafts and such, and mishmash garage-sale type items. I bought soap, spices, lavender, etc. Had brief moment of horror upon realization that cuddly bunnies in cages at a certain booth were not pets. !!

DAYTRIPPING: Arles makes a good base for nearby places, most notably the charming Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, reachable by car or public bus. Vincent spent a year in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, which can be partly visited (it's still a hospital). The Roman site of Glanum is next door to the asylum (Vincent was walking over it and didn't know it -- excavations began in the 1920s), and the town itself makes for a pleasant day. One can also get to Nîmes from Arles (I took the bus), home to some nice Roman ruins, and by car you can visit the town of Les Baux, not far away.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The First Sentence

In the film "The Hours" (I'm such a film buff, is it obvious?), Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is in the midst of being lectured by her husband about eating a proper luncheon, when she stares at him and says, "Leonard, I believe I have a first sentence." Her mind has not been on luncheon and pudding; it's been on the first sentence of "Mrs. Dalloway."

The first sentence is the hardest part of anything to write. It carries so much weight: of reader expectations, of writerly skill. I'm reading student essays (lots of 'em) these days, and I see in their papers the pressure they felt to make the first sentence special. Sometimes they go the grandiose, rhetorical, bombastic route with a statement that tries to encompass all of art history in one swoop; sometimes they keep it simple and to the point. Sometimes their first sentence works, sometimes it doesn't. That's the challenge of anybody's First Sentence. Doesn't matter who or for what.

I've rewritten the first three pages of "The Sunflowers" I don't know how many times. I haven't liked the first sentence at any point. It's been one thing, it's been another. But then, last night, finally, with an almost audible CLICK...

I believe I have a first sentence.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Read It and Weep

One of my favorite parts of the excellent movie "Romancing the Stone" comes at the very beginning, when Joan Wilder finishes her book and sits weeping happily at her typewriter. "Oh, God, that's good," she sobs.

Years of writing academically, and I've never shed a tear (well, except when I get rejections with nasty peer reviews), but writing my novel ... more tears than I would have expected. I'm not one of those fountain-people who weep habitually at movies and books ("English Patient" being an exception), and yet sometimes I inhabit my narrator, Rachel, so completely that I feel what she feels and break down into sobs. So it's not Joan-Wilder-god-that's-good tears, it's "This is so sad!" tears. It happened as recently as yesterday, when I stole a couple of hours away from essay-grading to work on revisions. I decided to rewrite a key couple of paragraphs in the last chapter, paragraphs whose wording never quite did what I wanted, and then...bam! By now I've done many drafts of the manuscript, so I thought I'd made it past all that, but ... We're not talking about big gasping boo-hoos, we're talking little tears that need a Kleenex.

There's something cathartic about it. I like feeling that deeply about what I'm writing. In scholarly writing, feelings aren't part of the equation: it's all about facts, theories, and footnotes. Forget being dramatic, forget being funny. Be clinical and make your point. Which is a shame when you're an art historian, because isn't the whole point of art to feel something?

Vincent once wrote to Theo: "I want to get to the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly." I hope someday this work of mine will be read, and somebody will say something similar about me.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Euro Kidding Me

The Euro is $1.57 against the dollar today, a whopping two cents less than the all-time high of $1.59 posted Thursday. Last May when I was traveling in Holland and France, I think it was something like $1.34, which means the 85-Euro a night Paris hotel room that cost $113.90 then would cost $135.15 a night now. Egads. My MBA-pursuing brother-in-law gave me an explanation for why the Euro is so strong versus the dollar (something about imports and exports), but that doesn't make it stink any less. The world may be smaller, but it sure ain't cheaper.

I think back to my grad-school days, my first Europe trips in 1996. I had two of them: a five-week one during the summer, and a nine-week one in the fall, doing dissertation research. I had a limited amount of grant money, so I had to be savvy with my money, and back then, pre-Euro, I could be. Sure, it was more of a challenge; every time you crossed a border you had to learn new currency and a new exchange rate, and carry around your calculator to tally up 1500 lire/dollar or 4.50 francs/dollar, but your dollar went further. The toilette-down-the-hall hotel I stayed in Paris back then cost me about 45 dollars a night; now it'd cost me 95.

I feel sorry for the young students who would like to experience Europe this summer, but can't afford it. The study abroad programs at my university are usually booked full by now, but this year most of them have extended deadlines to try and lure more participants. Some might have to be cancelled. Kids just can't do it. Heck, I'm not going to Europe myself this year, because when you add the airfares into the mix, you really are talking about a lot of money.

If there's a bright spot here, it's that European tourists have it made for their American travel, and a lot of them will be flooding to Florida. Helping my state's economy, so dependent on tourism, so that maybe the state government will send a little largesse into higher education. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

Friday, April 18, 2008

He Loves Vincent, Yeah Yeah Yeah

In today's Independent, former Beatle Ringo Starr describes Rembrandt as his "all-time hero" and says he likes van Gogh's self-portraits. "These guys are painters," Ringo says, "I'm a musician who likes to have fun." Rock on!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Celebrate National Library Week

It's National Library Week, time to reflect on the importance of libraries in promoting reading and learning, and in preserving our shared cultural heritage. What would I do without libraries?? Not much, since my research hinges on obscure this-and-that that the interlibrary loan office of my campus library heroically tracks down for me. Not much, since I'm always running over there to grab something for class or put something on reserve for the students. Not much, since one of my favorite activities on a non-busy day is just to browse the bookshelves and see what's new.

Like most people who love reading, I grew up going to the library. My Mom first took me to a library when I must have been 3 or 4 years old, and weekly visits were the norm. Every summer I participated in the Summer Reading Club for kids at the library, and it was through the library that I discovered new worlds in the books I read. Three cheers for libraries and librarians!

The honorary chair of National Library Week, by the way, is the fabulous Miss Julie Andrews. Learn about NLW at

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A New Vicky Bliss Novel!

Ok, so I'm a little slow to hear about this, but Elizabeth Peters -- whose books I've been reading for *years and years* -- has a new installment of her Vicky Bliss series coming out in August: "The Laughter of Kings." Sassy museum curator Vicky Bliss is one of my favorite fictional sleuths, her smooth art-thief lover John Smythe a favorite hero, and it's been a whole 14 years since the last book ("Night Train to Memphis"). That's cause for celebration.

The Girl With No Shadow

I rearranged my reading queue this past week to jump immediately into Joanne Harris' newest, "The Girl with No Shadow," the long-awaited sequel to her celebrated "Chocolat." Finished it last night, and I have to say, it's excellent. Harris has tremendous descriptive power in her writing, uses imagery so well, that this modern fairy tale following the continued adventures of Vianne Rocher keeps one turning the pages. It's four years since Lansquenet, and Vianne and her daughters (yes, daughters plural) are now living above a chocolaterie in Montmartre, in Paris. They meet a mysterious stranger, Zozie de l'Alba, and then .... ! The book moves between the first-person perspectives of Vianne, her elder daughter Anouk, and Zozie. You have to read a couple of sentences at each chapter's beginning to realize who's 'speaking,' but considering that shifting identities (literal and figurative) form a large part of the plot, the technique works well.

The Montmartre setting also works well, since this particular neighborhood has its share of shifting identities: it's Paris, yet not Paris; it's one place in the daytime, another at night; a touristy hangout around the Place du Tertre and the Sacré-Coeur, a quiet village further west. Harris captures the distinctive nature of Montmartre and the quirkiness of its inhabitants.

For anyone visiting Paris who wants to get to know Montmartre better, I recommend a walking tour with Paris Walks. Ten Euros and you get an hour and a half of the Montmartre backstreets, a knowledgable guide, and a lot of entertaining history. The tour avoids the touristy spots and focuses on the little-known corners. Of course, Vincent and Theo's building at 54 Rue Lepic is part of the walk (can't go inside their apartment though, somebody lives there), and you'll hear about Montmartre's other artsy alumni, from Toulouse-Lautrec to Renoir to Picasso to Modigliani. I've taken that tour twice and learned a lot both times. Paris Walks runs many other walking tours around town; check out their website at

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Van Gogh Goes High-Def

Sony has just announced that their new line of flat-screen HD televisions -- the Bravia (TM) E4000 series -- will include a Picture Frame Mode. Sort of like a screensaver, the TV operates on reduced power in Picture Frame Mode, and particularly when wall-mounted, the idea is to present something pretty instead of a blank black screen. Users can install their own pictures in the tv's photo gallery, or they can choose from six pre-installed images. One of them is the London version of van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Cypresses," further proof that marketing types think Vincent can sell just about anything.

Call me old-fashioned (and many would), but isn't it cheaper just to get a nice framed poster?

Friday, April 11, 2008

New on DVD this week...

The fabulous BBC series "The Private Lives of Masterpieces" is now available on DVD -- as the full seasons 1-5 collection, or as individual DVDs on specific time periods (Renaissance, Impressionism/Post-Impressionism, etc). A few episodes from the series have aired in the US on the Ovation network, and they are hands-down the best art documentaries I've ever seen, including the episode on van Gogh's "Sunflowers." Other episodes I've seen and liked include Rembrandt's "NIght Watch," Degas' "Little Dancer," Rodin's "The Kiss," and Renoir's "Le Moulin de la Galette." In each, not only the in-depth history of the work's creation is presented but also its life afterward. The "Night Watch" episode, for example, considers the multiple times it's been attacked in the museum and its subsequent restorations. I'm enormously excited about the DVD collection and will be ordering it soon!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Museum in the Woods

Last year at this time, I was gleefully plotting my research trip to Holland and France, armed with train schedules, bus schedules, any schedule I could get my hands on. One of my goals was to visit the famed Kroller-Muller Museum near Otterlo in the Netherlands, home to a very fine modern art collection and the second largest gathering of van Goghs in the world. Even during my planning, it seemed getting to the KMM via public transportation was going to be tricky, and that proved to be the case. But IT'S WORTH IT. It's a not-miss for any art lover or van Gogh fan visiting Holland.

The museum is situated deep in a national park, the idyllic Hoge Veluwe. Renting a car is by far the best choice, but if that's not an option, here's what you do: take a train from Amsterdam to the tiny station of Ede-Wageningen. Go outside the station to the phalanx of bus-stops and find the one for the Otterlo bus. This bus will deposit you at a random bus-stop outside the little town of Otterlo (officially called the Otterlo Rotunde) where another bus will meet you and take you to the Hoge Veluwe. On my trip it was so far so good ... until this bus stopped at the gates of the national park and the driver made everybody get off to buy a park ticket. Evidently one must buy a combo ticket for park and museum. OK, fine. Until the driver *drove away*! Now what?? How to get to the museum, a few kilometers from the Otterlo park entrance?

Two choices: a) walk or b) bike. The Hoge Veluwe is stocked with hundreds of free white bicycles that visitors can use. So I put my booty on a bike for the first time in about fifteen years, and biked to the KMM -- grumbling the whole way about the lost time and unexpected bout of exercise. So much so that I regret not enjoying the pretty surroundings more. Fortunately I asked a museum guard at the end of my visit where to catch the elusive bus to go BACK to Otterlo and avoid more biking -- be forewarned, you will need to ask somebody if you hope to find the oddly placed bus-stop around the corner from the museum. I'm still puzzling over this whole thing: why did the bus dump us?? What would you do if you were limited-mobility and couldn't walk/bike? It's genuinely bizarre, and if somebody knows the secret, share it here. I almost think the KMM folks want to keep away the maddening hordes of foreign tourists, thus preserving the calm and peace of the museum, by making it an effort to get there. Only the strong survive. I swear van Gogh's portrait was laughing at my sore butt.

But like I said, WORTH IT. It's a charming museum with very fine things, and the outdoor sculpture garden is a treat. Three galleries of van Goghs, some very famous, some less famous but no less interesting. They do have an active loan program, so if you're looking for something in particular, check their website, which helpfully lists what's out on loan. The website also has a link to a Dutch public transport site which will help you work out your schedules for trains/buses. Highly recommended since apparently the trains and buses do not always run beautifully in sync together.

Happy Travels!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Van Gogh's Night Cafe

In early September 1888, Vincent took as his subject the Cafe de la Gare in the Place Lamartine of Arles, staying up three nights in a row to paint. While cafes and restaurants had been an earlier interest, especially during his time in Paris, Vincent's approach to this particular cafe was different. His letters to Theo explain he wanted to show "a place where one could ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime," and to achieve this goal, he used bright colors and complementary color pairs. The all-night cafe feels oppressive and filled with loneliness -- empty chairs, mostly empty absinthe glasses -- the antithesis of the more cheerful "Cafe Terrace at Night" painted not long after.

Today this painting belongs to the Yale University Art Gallery, but I saw it most recently in a Met exhibition last summer. Seeing it in person again after many years, I was surprised what I noticed. That bouquet of pink flowers on the sideboard is lost in a flat photograph, but on the actual canvas its thickly applied paint draws the eye right away. It strikes a note of innocence and hope in an otherwise gloomy room. I listened that day as a college student tour group came to see the painting; Vincent would have been pleased at the wrinkled noses and exclamations of "That's ugly!"

Another story lingers in this painting: the identity of the man beside the pool table. He's Joseph Ginoux, owner of the Cafe de la Gare, at the time Vincent's landlord (Vincent moved to the yellow house about a month later). Vincent maintained a friendship with Ginoux and his wife Marie during his time in Arles, and came to visit them while at Saint-Remy. What he didn't know--and what he never learned--was that Joseph Ginoux (along with other Arlesians) signed a petition in February 1889 to forcibly confine Vincent in the Arles hospital, following a relapse. Ginoux's name is clearly visible in the original document, and his testimony appears elsewhere in police records. Why did Ginoux betray his friend? We'll never know.(See Martin Gayford's book The Yellow House for recent discussion.)

Today the site of the night cafe no longer exists. It's a parking lot now, the original building having been damaged in World War II.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Letter from Gauguin reports this morning that an 1889 letter from Paul Gauguin to a "Monsieur" sold for a surprising 90,000 Euros ($140,000) at a Berlin autographs auction yesterday. The estimate was 20,000 Euros. The high sale price, I'm guessing, comes from the subject of the letter: in it Gauguin speaks of his time in Arles with Vincent and the end of their cooperation. The description of the letter in the article is so vague that I do not know if its text has been published anywhere or whether it's one I've run across myself. If anybody knows its publication history, please comment!

Paul Gauguin (shown here) is an important part of Vincent's time in Arles and so I've made him a character in my novel. My narrator, Rachel (yes, THAT Rachel) doesn't like him much, so I had a lot of fun with that. The real Gauguin was opposite in every way from Vincent: obsessively neat (where Vincent was a slob), incredibly arrogant (where Vincent lacked confidence), a womanizer, and often a liar. His accounts of what happened on 23 December 1888, given in his much-later autobiography "Avant et Apres," used to be accepted as fact, but nowadays scholars see his inclination to exaggerate and take him with a grain of salt. Add all that to the feeling one gets from looking at his self-portraits and photographs taken of him, and voila! You get one fascinating novel-character and a whole lotta drama.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Van Gogh Meets Art History Survey

It's interesting to look at the different art history survey texts out there and which van Goghs they've chosen to include. Gardner's "Art Through the Ages," the text I use for my courses, has two: "Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine" and "Starry Night." Stokstad's Art History has two as well: "Starry Night" and "Japonaiserie: Flowering Plum Tree." Jansen's text (the revised 6th ed, anyway, I don't have the newest edition) eschews "Starry Night" in favor of "The Potato Eaters," the London version of "Wheatfield with Cypresses," and one of the Saint-Remy self-portraits. Topping them all is Laurie Schneider Adams' "Art Across Time" with SIX paintings: "Potato Eaters," "Japonaiserie: Bridge in the Rain," the Orsay version of "Bedroom at Arles," the Amsterdam version of "Wheatfield with Reaper," the Orsay Saint-Remy self-portrait, and "Starry Night." Each book author/publisher has its own agenda and makes particular points with their choices.

Which of his own paintings would Vincent choose for a survey textbook? That's a tough question, although it's true he favored certain of his works over others. I think the London version of "Sunflowers" would be one of them, and I actually think he'd go with one of the Arles bedroom canvases. Maybe "Potato Eaters," but not if he only could pick one or two. "Harvest at Arles: the Blue Cart" would be a prime candidate; he was always proud of that one. He would not pick "Starry Night" -- I think that's a given, and I doubt he'd pick "Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine." The latter canvas he considered one of his ugliest works (he meant it to be), but of course "Art Through the Ages" doesn't tell you that! It's a fascinating picture though, for its use of color and its view into the seedy side of Arles nightlife. More on that another day...