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Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, United States

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Weather or not...

Monday, May 26, 2008

We lost a day of cycling to rain here Sunday in what is substantially a coastal climate. Arles is only 35kms from the Mediterranean Sea, to the coast of which we drove, reaching the town of Stes-Marie-sur-la-Mer on the bouche du Rhône—the delta formed by “mouth of the Rhone river”—in time for lunch at the Hotel Thalacap, a big spa devoted to the French belief that bathing in heated seawater—Thalassotherapie—is especially good for your health. No one ever actually goes swimming in the ocean, right across the street. True, it was rather choppy and forbidding in the rain, but I’ve sampled its waters from Spain to Greece and Turkey and always enjoyed myself. Once, memorably, in a bay of the volcanic island of Lipari just off the coast of Sicily, but that was another trip.

We stopped at the Abbaye du Mt Majour on the way back, the locale for several of Van Gogh’s paintings, most dramatically his last work—“Crows over Wheatfield”—upon whose completion in 1889 he shot himself painfully in the side with a small bore pistol borrowed from his host, then walked the 8kms back to Arles, where he died.

This morning the rain had ceased but the storm front was still producing high winds and overcast, so the plan switched to hiking overland from Les Baux to St-Rémy. The marked trail begins just off the D27 below the ancient citadel, traverses the mountain and begins descending the valley toward St-Rémy, which is the locale for the sanitarium where Van Gogh spent nearly a year before moving into the home of Dr. Gachet in Arles. The sites for several of his most-reproduced works of the period—150 paintings in the 53 weeks he was a patient—are well-marked on a “Van Gogh walk” through the town. It’s a measure of the disdain for his art while he was alive that there are only three of his paintings in France, one—a study of sleeping field hands done near St-Rémy and modeled on a similar work by Manet—is in the Museé d’Orsay in Paris. It was the progressive patrons of the Chicago Art Institute at the turn of the 20th c who appreciated French impressionism. The Art Institute owns the world’s finest collection of expressionists and impressionists. Score one for the Americans.

In another indication of the character of foreign art appreciation, it was an American critic and a British curator who raised the funds in the 1950s to preserve the studio of Paul Cezánne just outside Aix-en-Provence; they formed a foundation for its maintenance and gave the building and its grounds into the care of the municipality, which now owes much of its prominence to its association with the artist, also little appreciated by his fellow citizens while he lived and worked there. What’s that saying about how we scorn the greatest among us during their lifetimes?

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