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Destination: France : IMPRESSIONS OF VAN GOGH : A Pilgrimage to the Place Where the Artist Died and a Look Into the Creative Soul

I am obsessed with the life of Vincent van Gogh. This started when I was 11 years old and saw the movie version of Van Gogh’s life, “Lust for Life,” starring Kirk Douglas.

My obsession has taken me around the world--to New York, Los Angeles, London, Geneva, Paris, Edinburgh--looking at private and public collections that include his work. But most often, I have traveled to Auvers, a small village north of Paris where Van Gogh spent the last few months of his life. Last autumn I made the most important pilgrimage yet: a visit to the small room where he lived, which opened to the public last year.

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I was 37. Van Gogh was 37 when he died.

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Auvers is about 32 miles north of Paris. But despite being so near a big city, one feels completely in the countryside in the Oise valley. It is a simple village of a few thousand people, typical of countless others in France. The center is dominated by a few shops and cafes, with narrow streets lined with neat houses whose window boxes are filled with geraniums. Notre Dame, the Roman Catholic church made famous by a Van Gogh painting, stands near the edge of town.

Visitors come to Auvers for one reason only, and that is Van Gogh. Nearly all of the places he painted during his short stay still exist, and familiar paintings come frequently to mind as one wanders about town. Thanks to the largess of designer Yves St. Laurent, the town is dotted with signs that point out the real scenes and juxtapose them with the paintings. Otherwise, there are few other obvious reminders that Van Gogh stayed here. T-shirt shops are, thankfully, nowhere to be found.

I always make my way to the church first. Van Gogh painted this church, creating a masterpiece that matched the words he wrote about it: “The building appears to be violet-hued against the sky of a simple deep blue color, pure cobalt; the stained glass windows appear as ultramarine blotches; the roof is sand with the pink glow of sunshine on it.”

I never go inside the church anymore; for me there is but one view of it, and that is the view that Van Gogh painted.

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A rusty sign across from the church points up the hill toward Van Gogh’s tomb; the small winding road leading to the cemetery. On my way up, I always look back to see the village and the Oise River valley. The view has hardly changed over the decades, and it takes little imagination to see what this place looked like in Van Gogh’s day.

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This time, as I rounded the bend heading for the cemetery, I noticed on this familiar horizon a new horror. Instead of the vicious, darting crows I had come to expect, I saw something far more awful: tourists. I must admit that I, too, was there as a tourist. Still, for me the area is sacred, and I detested sharing it with a horde descended from a pair of belching buses.

Indeed, tourists were everywhere, scattered all over the fields like bad brush strokes dressed in fluorescent track suits, hats and sneakers. The whole scene looked like a very bad Impressionist painting executed in neon colors by someone far more lunatic than Van Gogh.

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With the worldwide publicity about the opening of his room, this was bound to happen; in fact, more than half a million have visited since the opening last September of l’Auberge Ravoux, where the room is located. I will just have to accept it.

Oh, Vincent, what have you done . . . ?

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The pack of tourists finally moved from the cemetery to investigate other wonders, leaving me to place my flowers on Van Gogh’s grave. (I always leave something--irises or a paintbrush.)

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The grave is simple, situated in a typical French cemetery with a high wall surrounding it. Next to it is that of his brother, Theo, who died just six months after Vincent--they say, poetically, of a broken heart. Theo’s wife planted upon the graves a sprig of ivy from the garden of his doctor, Paul Gachet, and today the two simple headstones are still swathed in dark green leaves.

From the graveyard, one can easily wander across the fields to where he painted one of his last and most famous paintings, “Crows in the Wheat Field.” It was there that I met up with the gang of tourists. Cameras flashed in every direction. A gentle rain had begun to fall again; the tourists let out a cry of dismay.

“Go, go,” I said under my breath. I longed to have this place to myself.

Suddenly all was quiet. The rain had given way to a light drizzle and then finally a fine mist, which covered the fields like a spectacular dry ice show. I touched the soil with my hand and started to walk in the footsteps that Van Gogh must have taken many times before as I made my way down the slope and back into town.

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Van Gogh arrived here in May, 1890, by train. He walked up the gentle slope, past the home owned by the artist Daubigny, along the winding Rue des Vessenots and finally to Gachet’s house.

It was because of Gachet that Van Gogh came to Auvers. Vincent’s brother, Theo, knew of the doctor’s reputation as one who had helped other artists--including Cezanne--cope with their sometimes frail states of mind. And Theo, who lived in Paris, could rest a little easier knowing he could quickly reach Vincent, should he fall ill again.

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In Auvers, Van Gogh found lodging in a small inn owned by Arthur Gustave Ravoux and his wife, who charged him about 70 cents a day for full board. The room was small and modest, 8 feet by 8 feet, and furnished with only a single metal-frame bed, a tiny skylight that let the northern sun shine through, a small table and a washbowl. This suited Van Gogh, who would fill the room over the next few weeks with many wet canvasses--one for each day that he stayed. What also attracted Van Gogh to the inn was the cozy atmosphere of the cafe downstairs, with its billiards room not unlike one he had painted a few years before in the south of France.

A century later, in 1983, when a Belgian businessman named Dominique Janssens happened through town, the inn was in total disrepair. Until then, Janssens had had no particular interest in the artist. But in Auvers he was involved in an auto accident that, according to the police report, occurred outside “the Van Gogh house.” His interest was piqued, and soon he became enthralled.

It took Janssens a decade to raise more than $6 million to restore the two-story stucco building to its former quiet glory. Last fall, he reopened it as l’Auberge Ravoux; today, as then, it houses a restaurant.

Details have been faithfully reproduced. An old mural was uncovered and restored. The chairs, gas lamps and lace curtains are of that period. The restaurant offers the sort of hearty country fare--stews, steaks and vegetables--that was served in Van Gogh’s day.

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My friends and I were to have lunch at the inn, then visit Van Gogh’s room. We entered through the side door. The murmur of voices and aromas of wonderful food wafted through the air.

I was stricken by anxiety. But I proceeded past the small room where Van Gogh had painted when the weather was too bad to go outside; past the small staircase up to his room and then finally into the restaurant.

Everybody--my friends, and the very French patrons with their well-behaved children and dogs--seemed so relaxed. Was it just me? I wanted to stand on my chair and scream, “What’s wrong with you all? How can you just sit there? He died up there. Yes, up there in that tiny room. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

Instead, I took another large gulp of wine and stared at the ceiling, soaked in anticipation for my visit to the room, the visit I had imagined so many times. I had painted many scenes based on the end of his life, but I did not really know what this room, his last home, looked like.

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As I finished my glass of wine, I glanced over at the front entrance of the inn and pictured Van Gogh’s final return from a day in the fields. On July 29, 1890, just after lunch, Van Gogh left the inn and walked 1 1/2 kilometers to the Chateau d’Auvers, the local manor house. He leaned his easel against a haystack, walked down a small dirt track that ran down beside the chateau’s wall, pulled out a revolver, placed it to his chest and pulled the trigger.

It is unclear whether he intended to kill himself or whether this was just another of his self-mutilation tantrums. In any event, he lay there for some time before rising and making his way back to the inn.

Arthur Ravoux stood outside his inn and saw Van Gogh in the distance. Van Gogh seemed to be hunched over. He came closer, then he entered the inn and staggered up the narrow staircase for the final time.

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Theo arrived the next day from Paris, finding Van Gogh much better than he had expected. The two brothers talked in their native Dutch; Van Gogh puffed on a pipe. But as the daylight turned to dark, so did Van Gogh’s health. Theo knew the end was near and climbed onto the small steel bed, cradling his brother’s head in his arms.

“I wish I could pass away like this,” Van Gogh said. Half an hour later he was dead.

At last, my own lesser wish was granted--to see Van Gogh’s room.

I told Janssens, the director, of my fascination with Van Gogh and how I was working on a series of paintings based on Van Gogh’s stay at Auvers.

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Normally, five people at a time are allowed in, and only for a few minutes but Janssens did something quite wonderful for me. He closed the room from the public for a short while so I could look around in peace.

As I walked up the stairs, my eyes stung with tears. I had lived this route a million times in my mind; finally it was real. I couldn’t bring myself to turn the small black doorknob; Janssens did it for me. Then he left me alone.

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I stood there in the tiny room, unable to breathe at first. The last gentle beam of light poked its way through the window and then disappeared for the rest of the day. The room darkened.

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I tried to absorb everything. I could see the nail holes where Van Gogh had hung his paintings to dry. There were marks on the wall and floor where his bed had once been, and a small cubbyhole where Van Gogh must have stashed his few possessions. The room was completely empty, but I could only see it as it must have been on that disastrous day.

With the rain gently starting to tap on the skylight, I took a deep breath and left almost running from the scene. I spent the night drawing sketch after sketch of Van Gogh in his room. I was frantic and heartbroken. Up to now, visiting the little village had been a comfortable experience. Now it was unbearably sad. This was a man who painted the sun like nobody has ever painted it before, and to end up in this dark little room seemed terribly wrong.

The tragedy was suddenly real to me, and what was worse was that I knew it could happen to me, to anyone. We are all vulnerable.

The town of Auvers, too, is in danger. I hope it and the inn can remain quiet and untrampled. I worry that Van Gogh’s room will somehow collapse under the stare of too many visitors. After all, it was never intended as a tourist attraction, just a small room where a virtually unknown Dutch painter was to stay for a short time.

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GUIDEBOOK: Van Gogh in Auvers

Getting there: From LAX fly nonstop to Paris on United, Air France or TWA; with one change of planes on American, British Air, KLM, Delta, Continental, Northwest, USAir, Lufthansa. Round-trip fares start at about $990.

Auvers is about 32 miles north of Paris. It can be reached by train from Paris’ Gare du Nord or by rental car.

Where to eat: Reservations are required for dining at l’Auberge Ravoux, the inn where Van Gogh lived and died, Place de la Mairie. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. The menu is hearty country fare; a nice meal including wine costs $25 to $35 per person; tel. (011-33-1-34-48-0547).

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Van Gogh’s room: Van Gogh’s room is open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The cost for visiting it is about $5; children under 12 are free.

For more information: The local tourism office is across the cobbled alley from the inn.

French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills 90212; telephone (900) 990-0040 (calls cost 50 per minute).


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