Walk 1 12 October 2012
…part of the fascination of the Ventoux must derive from the hostile forces the mountain can unleash. Hurricanes could wipe out up to 90 sheep and 30 goats in one fell swoop, and flash floods could wreak havoc in neighbouring towns. The mountain was known for its wolves …its caves were reputed by local legend to lead down to hell itself. Even the very stones are to be feared when the wind gets up. In one midwinter storm in the 1970s, the body of a woman tourist was found just below the summit. The car that she and her husband were driving had been blown off the road, its windscreen smashed by a stone driven by the wind and she had then attempted to walk the few hundred metres to the observatory for help. Her body was virtually unrecognizable due to the bruises from the windblown rocks. ‘She had been stoned. Killed by the rocks. It seemed incredible,’ said a soldier stationed at the summit… (Fotheringham: 206-7)
Walking then, through the uncertain, unfamiliar moonlight with my son, on the gently curved backbone of the mountain, following the concreted poles there is a sudden falling away into a shadowy blackness, rising up from beneath and then toppling as if into the dark void. Like Virgil guiding Dante, I stop, holding on for dear life to his hand, as the wind roars across the exposed ridge, threatening to tear us apart and grind us into the boney shards of the mountain’s barren crown. Below our feet the shifting, crackling bones of a million souls. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the penitent walks through flames to purge himself of lustful thought and feeling, but in the Inferno, the unforgiven lustfilled souls are blown about incessantly, in restless hurricane-like winds. Hell indeed – how odd this touch of the sublime.
Walk 2 30 October
From Chateaurenard via Glanum to St-Rémy-de-Provence
“Go ahead…if you must. But it is idiotic!”
We stop on the way to St Rémy to explore the old town and citadel of Châteaurenard. There is a way marked up through the old town that takes you round the citadel, through a steep terracing of dense mature trees. This public park is an ideal place from which to survey something of the local topography. Gaining you breath in the cooling shade of the plants you can sit gazing out across uninterrupted views of the Durance, past Avignon and the fortress of the Pope’s Palaces, along the Rhone, to the right up toward Mont Ventoux and the mountains that rise from the flat floodplains of the Vaucluse. Châteaurenard second only to Cavaillon as a centre of fruit and vegetable distribution in the region provides a similar platform (a raised detached outcrop) from which to look down on the surrounding fields. Having thus satisfied your desire for topographic mastery you leave the promontory and head south toward the centre of the Alpilles. Here just under the jagged outcrops and quarries of these dry miniaturised alpine peaks, you will find the ancient city of Glanum. A place that took root round a sacred source that still rises from the limestone heart of the Alpilles, and feeds the Roman-lined wells. But today we are headed for another source, slightly below the partially excavated site and across the road from Les Antiques is a place that takes its name from one of these Roman enigmatic monuments – the Mausole of the Julii (a misappropriated name).
We park on the edge of a long tarmac and gravel road with newly planted olive trees placed sparsely over the sloping ground. Behind, rising up with a crumbling austerity, are the retaining walls that surround the old asylum buildings of this other place – Saint-Paul de Mausole (formerly an Augustinian monastery). These tall unevenly rendered walls – half imprisoning and half-sheltering – that formed the enclosure to a monastic confinement, once lived inside these boundaries. This site was passed in the 19th Century to those in need of care, to those ‘spiritually unhinged, the unbalanced’. It was to this asylum that Van Gogh turned, once he could see he was a danger to himself and others close to him. He had himself voluntarily admitted to the asylum at Saint Paul on the 8th May 1889.
I have a strong, an immediate feeling of deja vu as I make the long walk through the tall overhanging walls, and down the long walled corridor toward the ‘museum’. As you look along the plant beds that sit either side of the walls, with their arrangement of flowers shrubs and trees, you can re-envision that day when he entered the hospital as a confined patient. It is alive just as Vincent Van Gogh created it, within one of his paintings: the purple and blue irises, the lush leaves, the stern forms of exotic and majestic trees. In the walled garden beyond the museum shop there is a large earth bed filled with the bone-dry remains of sunflowers, their heads dipped toward the sun much as Van Gogh dreaming – searching for the sun and light to create a new art
“To make the journey in one from the north to Spain, for example, is not a good thing, you will not see what you should see – you must get your eyes accustomed gradually to the different light. “(Van Gogh: 458-463)
Ah the‘unfortunate lunatic’ – “ Ah sunflower, weary of time, /Who countest the steps of the sun, Seeking after that sweet golden clime/Where the traveler’s journey is done;” (Blake, 1793)
“I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, “to-morrow, and tomorrow?” Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness? So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read. ” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. (The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book VIII, Paragraphs 28 and 29)
Immediately on entering the beautifully tendered cloister with its neat Romanesque arches, supporting the corridor above with its open windowed cells, I am struck by the peacefulness and calm. Climbing plants grow up the walls and there are large ceramic vases filled with dark green acanthus like plants. It has the air of an asylum but emptied of patients; the simplicity and modesty of the place must have something to do with the fact that the monastery buildings are still attached to a working hospital dedicated to psychiatric patients. There is a real feeling of sanctuary and of asylum. The cloister has a comforting human scale – not grand but reserved – the small twin pillars that hold up the open arches are capped with capitals adorned with vegetative curves, foliate forms and arasbesques. There is one well-preserved carving of a greenman disgorging two large curled spiral growths from his open mouth. On leaving the cloister I am struck again by an uncanny sense of having been there before. This is purely the result of studying Van Gogh’s paintings, such as this view in front of me now, of the cloister doorway/passage. Here he not only managed to reproduce both the scale and sense of the place; but recreates the sensation of a building and its fabric in that way that it can hardly be altered. (Entrance Hall of Saint-Paul Hospital, Black chalk, brush and thinned oil on pink paper, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) The modern hospital is contained in buildings further down the slope beyond the long wall. Nevertheless there are still some people here carrying drawings, filing quietly into a room in the far corner of the cloister – they seem to be conducting an art therapy session. But it is all very discrete: “Saint Paul de Mausole remains today a psychiatric health institution: The Maison de Santé Saint-Paul ; a short-stay psychiatric clinic with 67 beds; The specialized establishment of the IRIS treating 38 mentally handicapped residents; The EHPAO Les Oliviers taking in 27 dependant elderly persons, with a day reception of 5 places”
Description of the cloister: Le cloître, très accueillant grâce à son jardin, comporte deux galeries construites vers 1140-1150 (galeries nord et est) et deux galeries plus récentes construites à la fin du XIIe siècle2. Les arcades sont groupées par groupes de trois sous de grands arcs de décharge prenant appui sur de puissants piliers. Les arcades sont séparées par des colonnettes jumelées portées par le mur-bahut et ornées de magnifiques chapiteaux. Dès 982, Le monastère est un prieuré de l’abbaye Saint-André de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon et devient, en 1080 le siège d’un monastère de chanoines soumis à la règle de saint Augustin.
We climb the steps up to the first floor, as many thousands have done before us. Reproductions of Van Gogh’s work hang on the walls alongside recent works by other patients. Dr. Théophile Peyron and Saint Paul hospice was an institution experimenting with new therapies – it remains a pioneer in art therapy.
There are cracks in the plaster, across the curved wall of cell: baths in room opposite and the worn red tiles on floor. During the Second World War prisoners of war and for sometime ‘aliens’, were kept in the monastery cells. The room that houses the metal bed – the facsimile of Van Gogh’s cell – has a magnificent view of Mont Ventoux. I wonder, could he see it from his cell or was the view obscured – were there tall trees there, blocking the view, that have long since been felled? From the walled garden, the view of the wheatfields, that Vincent looked out on, with their background of jagged hills, has been entirely erased, and the Alpilles themselves are obscured by the growth of trees, mostly pine that rise beyond the monastery boundaries.
“During the attacks I feel cowardly in the face of the pain and suffering – more cowardly than is justified – and perhaps it is this moral cowardice itself, which previously I had no desire to cure, that now makes me eat for two, work hard, and limit my relations with the other patients for fear of falling ill again – in short I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.” (Van Gogh: 459)
Does this description contain the germ of an imprinted memory, backwards from the weekly plunge baths he was subjected to. Two hours locked into frozen water – part of the treatment… Although in his letters he seldom talks of being cold or hungry, or even of being too hot, as if he’s not aware of these minor sufferings – everything turbulent and so much about the interior mind. You sense that despite the crude apparatus of treatment, the cold baths displayed in bleak photographs (Photographs of the hospice – how they were left in early 20th Century, with lines of stone baths in a cold corridor) that this was a genuine place of refuge for his troubled soul. The paintings he made here are some of the most beautiful and varied especially considering the confines and constraints of his situation. This great series of paintings, at least 150 canvases, that depict the changing seasons and record something of the turbulence of his mind, recovering or reaching toward crisis: a beautiful Japanese inspired, painting of almond blossom, painted for his newly born nephew (Theo’s son), which presaged his last great fit (in the terrible thought and feeling that he was an awful unproductive burden for his brother). The birth of art therapy, in an exquisite still-life of an almond twig?
One of the stone baths used for ‘therapy’ has now been banished to the garden where it serves as a generous plant basin. Just in front of it stands a gaunt bronze figure, Zadkine’s rendering of Van Gogh. It is slightly awkward but affecting. Although it is not a brilliant likeness, it captures something of the vulnerability and fierce independence of Vincent.
Postscript- From the letters of Gauguin. Writing to Van Gogh a few months before going south:
‘Art is an abstraction, unfortunately one becomes less and less understood. I would like us to realize our plans, namely my trip to Provence. I’ve always had a fancy to interpret the bull races in my own manner, as I understand them. I am beginning to regain the freedom of my faculties: my illness had weakened me and in my most recent studies I have , I think, gone beyond what I have done up to now.
Naturally the crowd of louts who are here find me quite mad. I don’t mind that – it just proves to me that I’m not.” (to Vincent van Gogh – Pont-Aven , c.25 July 1888)
It is both interesting and still unsettling how Gauguin characterizes his friend’s death, as a Buddhic release. It echoes his even more callous thoughts on Theo Van Gogh’s sudden decline. Of course Gauguin was depending on Theo, while with Vincent he always felt he was the mature artist who had little to learn from the Dutchman….
“ I have heard about Vincent’s death, and I am glad that you went to the funeral.
Sad though this death maybe, I am not very grieved, for I knew it was coming and I knew how the poor fellow suffered in his struggles with madness. To die at this time is a great happiness for him, for it puts an end to his sufferings, and if he returns in another life he will harvest the fruit of his fine conduct in the world (according to Buddhist principles). He took with him the consolation of not having been abandoned by his brother and of having been understood by a few artists… (Gauguin to Emile Bernard, Le Pouldu, August 1890)
Only two months later he writes this to Bernard:
“…Serusier tells me that you are organizing an exhibition of Vincent’s works. What a tactless thing to do!
You know I like Vincent’s art. But given the stupidity of the public, it is quite the wrong moment to remind them of Vincent and his madness just when his brother is in the same boat. Many people say that our painting is mad. It will only do us harm without doing Vincent any good etc… Go ahead if you must – but it is idiotic. (Pont-Aven , October 1890)
Walk 6 17 November
A first ascent on Mont Ventoux – from Malaucene up the GR4
from Saint Augustine’s Confessions
“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. (De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 )
The Spiritual Brothers from the Avignon house, after they had lost the crucial debate on poverty, conceding ground to the Conventual Franciscans, left that ‘god forsaken’ city and set up a small community in the hills near Malaucene. Here they retreated to recover their strength, to the fringes of the Vaucluse enclave, just as Petrarch would some fifty years later when he too fled the pestilential Papal city. So now it is our time to leave behind the concrete and the tarmac, the building sites, the shopping malls and carparks, the endless eddying back and forth through contraflows, and round, roundabouts, the back to front world of consumerism, and finally escape for a half a day to the Dentelle mountains that rise up from Malaucene. We hope to make our ascent from there up to the summit of Mont Ventoux by foot. So we leave the car behind at the bottom of a pathway that leads past an old lime quarry and climb up the GR4 along a winding track, the sun is mostly behind the mountains but occasionally rises over the woods and bathes us in a warm autumnal sun.
It appears from the map I studied before we set off that we have long trek ahead of us. I start off at a brisk pace, anxious to see if my calculations are approximately correct. I have optimistically calculated that we can reach the summit and be down in time to collect our kids from school by 4pm. It becomes only too clear that it his was pure wishful thinking, on my part. The map that I have consulted, riven as it is with closely aligned contours, can only half describe the painfully steep climb ahead, the punishing rollercoaster ups and downs. Already our pace is slowing as we labour up a steep shaded ravine. It will take at least twice the time that we have, to actually reach the top of Mont Ventoux, and that is without leaving any time to descend. Are desire may not be fulfilled today but the walk is invigorating and provides the luxurious necessity of an uninterrupted thinking, as one foot follows the other… there is no turning back now, just another circuitous route… Au pied, the genesis of thought, through the rhythm of walking the human experiment made progress.
What a joy to leave the city behind and walk in the crisp clean air, up through the scree and boulders, through the pine trees. To watch the light filtering through the forest canopy and think of Larinov and Lermontov; to be privileged to stop and listen for a time, absorbing the deep silence; to be on the mountainside and to suddenly hear the sound of a solitary cricket starting-up briefly, a beast still enjoying the late autumn sun on this clear November day. I think of the contrast to London at this time of year, in late Autumn – suddenly cold and humid in the shade – the clocks turned back and the leaves swirling in the damp wind. Here there is a feeling of being surrounded by emptied space, of being part of a vast untrammeled wilderness that stretches on and on before one as you clamber up the pathway. Even if this is only another illusion, broken by the unexpected appearance of sinister figures lurking in the woods, camouflaged hunters pretending they too are alone in the wild with their guns and dogs. They attempt to completely ignore the intrusive walker, or tolerate them only in so far as they do not disturb their serious concentration. But if you look, you can see their signs littered everywhere, the white vans parked up the track which they will not stray too far from, cigarette butts, empty packets, spent cartridges by the path and the occasional call and barking of dogs. Thank goodness the pathway is now climbing steeply up the course of a storm creak, the dried out bed of the stream acts as the path. As we ascend I muse on the ease of hijacking someone, here. How one of these morose hunters could easily bundle us into the back of their battered pick up, or even shoot us in the back; this scenario suggested by Sciascia and replicated across Europe (the perfect way to get rid of a rival). As we climb we meet the absolute opposite of this image, another hunter with a jolly moustache saying hello to us and smiling broadly. It maybe that he is this friendly because he hopes we have seen his dog and can help him find it. But we have to admit to him… non.
Finally we reach the top of the first peak of the Dentelles. Somewhere, still a long way off from here, rises the summit of Mont Ventoux. But that is for another time, for now we must descend. As we scramble down the GR91 footpath we are surrounded by a pervasive smell of box, and standing at the summit of the climb looking out across a partially obscured view with a crooked pine branch framing the foreground. It is as if we are gazing at one of Cezanne’s views – through from the branch, a solid foreground the landscape dissolves into a fragmented set of indistinct planes, cut up by distance and refraction.