By Nina Siegal
In the late winter of 1888, exhausted and numbed by his life in Paris and longing for a place where the sun could be relied up, the artist Vincent van Gogh left his brother Theo’s flat in Montmartre and took the express train to Marseille the south of France.
There, he switched to a local train headed north again, planning to settle in Tarascon, where he wanted to set up an artists’ retreat, l’atelier du midi. But on the way, from the train’s windows, “I noticed some magnificent scenery — huge yellow rocks, oddly jumbled together, with the most imposing shapes,” he wrote to his brother the next day. “In the small valleys between these rocks there were rows of little round trees with olive-green or grey-green foliage, which could well be lemon trees.”
This was Arles, where Van Gogh got off the train — a city in Provence to which Van Gogh’s name is now forever linked. Then, it was a quaint 19th century village built atop ancient Roman ruins on the banks of the River Rhone. It was snowing the evening Van Gogh arrived — already about two feet had accumulated by his accounting — and the snow was still coming down as he penned his letter to Theo: “I noticed some magnificent plots of red earth planted with vines, with mountains in the background of the most delicate lilac. And the landscape under the snow with the white peaks against a sky as bright as the snow was just like the winter landscapes the Japanese did.”
Arles is fortunate that Van Gogh spotted that “magnificent scenery” and got off the train when he did, because it’s due in large part to his legacy that this city has since maintained a reputation as a destination for people fascinated by his use of color and light, drawn by the almost 200 artworks he created here, among them his famous “The Yellow House,” where he lived, “Café Terrace at Night,” where he drank, and his series of “Sunflowers,” carried home in his hands from fields and fields of cumbersome yellow blooms that grow at the foot of the nearby Alpilles.
Although his time here may not have ended well, Van Gogh had great fondness for the region. “The whole future of modern art is to be found in the south,” he wrote later. He was partially right. Paul Gauguin had a short, though troubled, visit to Arles to see Van Gogh; Paul Cezanne set up a studio and home in nearby Aix en Provence; Henri Matisse settled in Nice; and Pablo Picasso often visited Arles, if not for the light than for the bullfights that still take place twice a year here.
Today, Arles’ art scene is probably livelier than it has ever been, and certainly more vibrant than it was in Van Gogh’s day. It currently boasts three serious museums, including the two-year-old Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, as well as about a dozen professional contemporary art galleries, and it serves annually as a host to one of the most important photography festivals in the world, Les Rencontres d’Arles, which last year attracted 93,000 visitors, and brings all kinds of related pop-up galleries to town for three months every summer.
Arles is also gathering steam for the arrival of the Frank Gehry-designed experimental cultural center the LUMA Arles in the 20-acre Parc des Ateliers, scheduled to open in 2018. That $100 million development project, spearheaded by the Luma Foundation’s cultural philanthropist and art collector Maja Hoffmann, is expected to help Arles become a magnet for even more culture in the coming years. In designing the building, Gehry says he drew on many of Arles’ own sources of inspiration: “We wanted to evoke the local, from Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ to the soaring rock clusters you find in the region. Its central drum echoes the plan of the Roman amphitheater.”
If much of the recent development of Arles’ art scene is due in part to Vincent’s legacy, it took a long time for the city’s inhabitants to properly recognize the contribution of the Dutch painter.
“Van Gogh and Arles was not a love story,” Julia Marchand tells me when I meet her in a stone courtyard shaded by some lovely plane trees across the street from the Fondation Van Gogh. “People here didn’t really like him at the time. He was quite smelly, he was Dutch, a foreigner, he was making ugly paintings as far as the people here were concerned, so he wasn’t really well accepted.” After he had a fight with his friend Paul Gauguin, the only artist who visited his fledgling “art colony,” he cut off part of his own ear, they asked him to leave.
That may explain what it took 125 years for the city to establish any kind of permanent physical commemoration of Van Gogh here. That only happened in 2014, with the opening of the Fondation Van Gogh, a stunning new museum in the city’s medieval quarter, following a 20-year effort by a local nonprofit association.
In 2010, the Mayor of Arles provided the foundation with a former 15th century manor house known as the Hôtel Léautaud de Donines, previously a location of the Banque de France. With a private investment of about $15 million, the two-story, 11,000-square foot building was restored and expanded by Fluor Architects.
Marchand guided me into the white stone courtyard of the museum, through the doors of the glittering glass façade and up into the light-filled museum shop, pointing out the stained glass sculpture on its roof, by Swiss Raphael Hefti, made up of 78 dichroic coated glass fins that refract specks of light onto the limestone walls inside, with the effects changing as the sun moves through the sky during the day.
The interior spaces vary from large white open galleries to rooms that feel more like 19th century apartments, combining elements of the medieval stone architecture with very cutting edge contemporary design. Exhibitions include a wide range of contemporary and older work; when I was there, it was a retrospective of large glass sculptures by New York-based contemporary artist Roni Horn, and a display of 19th century Japanese art prints.
Through a partnership with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which owns the world’s largest trove of Van Gogh works anywhere in the world, the Fondation will always have at least one original work by the artist on show all year round. On display from April 1st 2016 to March 2017 is Van Gogh’s “Undergrowth” (1889) produced during Van Gogh’s stay in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. This summer, the Fondation will pull off something quite remarkable: from May 14th to September 11th, it will host an exhibition of 31 original paintings, “Van Gogh in Provence: Modernizing Tradition.”
Already, about 200,000 people visit Arles every year in one way or another drawn by art and a fascination with the area’s artistic legacy, Marchand told me, and that number is growing all the time. Walking through the sandstone-colored, narrow streets that arc above the Roman amphitheater and wind through lilac-covered alleyways, it’s easy to understand why this place is a source of inspiration. Around every corner, one can discover a charming grouping of lilies or a sudden pool of sunlight. Shooting atmospheric photographs here is as easy as catching fish in a bucket.
Julia de Bierre, a British writer who was born in Malaysia and decided to settle partially in Arles, opened what she calls a “house gallery,” Galerie Huit, in a 17th century mansion that she also runs as a small hotel. On the ground floor, she holds exhibitions of contemporary art and photography, and runs a multi-disciplinary artist in residence program as well. “When I opened my space in 2007, we were one of probably three dedicated art spaces outside of the big festival, and now we’re about thirty,” she tells me. “So now it’s very exciting, very vibrant, and one of the forces behind that is the Luma Foundation, which is attracting all sorts of other energies. Whereas before, Arles was probably very seasonal, it is now someplace where cultural things are happening all year.” De Bierre is also a member of an organization called Arles Contemporain, an 18-member association that hosts events and exhibitions, including a house gallery called L’atelier du midi – in honor of Van Gogh’s ill-fated art residency. “It means that on any weekend there’s somebody or other in the network that’s doing something,” she tells me.
There are other independent galleries not represented by this association, and one I stumbled into after seeing some beautiful prints through the open door, a one-room corner space just off the Place du Forum (where Van Gogh painted his famous Café at Night) was Anne Clergue, run by a veteran of Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, who selects work by contemporary photographers who have a historic flavor, such as the moody black and white still lifes of British photographer John Stewart.
Closer to the Rhone is the long-standing Musee Reattu, created in 1868, an old master and modern art museum, where Picasso had an early exhibition in 1957. To formalize his affection for the city, in 1971, two years before his death, the painter selected 57 numbered and dated drawings of his own to donate to the museum, a renovated 15th century former priory of the knights of Malta. This museum also owns a precious handwritten letter written in 1889 by Van Gogh and addressed to the painter Paul Gauguin, which was purchased and donated to the museum by the inhabitants of Arles, whose opinion of Vincent has clearly changed a bit since he left the town.
In it, Van Gogh wrote: “You talk to me in your letter about a canvas of mine, the sunflowers with a yellow background — to say that it would give you some pleasure to receive it. I don’t think that you’ve made a bad choice – if [George] Jeannin has the peony, Ernest Quost the hollyhock, I indeed, before others, have taken the sunflower.”