In Auvers-sur-Oise

photo: last paintng, van gogh, auvers

Too late for the unharvested wheat and no crows in
sight - Vincent Van Gogh's last painting.

Visiting Vincent Van Gogh

Auvers-sur-Oise:- Saturday, 11. August 2001:- This is a place I always thought of coming to see on days that were soggy and slate grey with overcast. This was mostly when I lived straight south and had a car, and thought I might need a getaway from the seemingly endless gloom.

So, of course, I put it off until I moved further away. Auvers-sur-Oise is where some of the bright paintings of some of the Impressionists were done and it's not going anywhere - so there's time.

In Paris this summer, there are posters for it in the métro stations. These have changed from being merely 'impressionistic' and this year's versions are about a subtle as crude hammers - much more gaudy than Disneyland's, which look quite a lot like tired Valentines with bad artwork.

'See the Impressionist heros! Sounds! Lights! Multimedia! Shows at night! Fireworks! Voyagez au Temps des Impressionnistes!' shout the billboards for Auvers-sur-Oise - with what must be the worst illustrations of the year, certainly of this century.

Luckily, it is easy to remember that Auvers-sur-Oise is where Vincent Van Gogh lived his last '70 days.' Thisphoto: auberge ravoux, auvers is Auvers-sur-Oise's main claim to fame - and not Vincent's other 37 years nor Vincent's 800 paintings and 700 drawings done over a period of only 11 years.

I believe the Musée d'Orsay has a passel of Vincent's production under its roof, but I have never been in it. Today is not one to be 'in' anything anyway - it is a 'Vincent at work' day, with a summer sky like Arles.

The Auberge Ravoux, where Vincent last lived, and died.

Although Auvers-sur-Oise is only 40 kilometres from Paris - 'C'est à la côté!' - and directions to get to it include the RER, SNCF trains, highways and even walking - after taking the train from Saint-Lazare, I think the trains from Gare du Nord may be faster.

The two-platform train station at Auvers-sur-Oise is suitably original, and the side facing the town has a plaque saying Vlaminck painted it. Across the way is the Parc Van Gogh, which has shade from the unusually bright sunlight, and a statute of the town's hero by Ossip Zadkine.

For some reason I think there has been a 'statue-switch' and John Lennon has exchanged places with Vincent. Apparently Zadkine was unimpressed with Vincent's last self-portrait.

To aid the art-loving visitor, reproductions of paintings are posted in front of their subjects - except for the train station - so it is easier to tell that the town's Hôtel de Ville was one. Handy too, because the famous Auberge Ravoux is directly across the way from it.

This is also known as the 'Maison Van Gogh' in the brochures and in legend, but Auberge Ravoux is what is painted on the building.

All of this is only a few minutes' walk from the train station and should be enough for anybody - but thephoto: hotel de ville, auvers Tourist Office is just around the next corner to the right, and it is the place to get all of the brochures in case you tend to overlook the posted repros.

Officially, according to these brochures, a visit to the artists' studios takes three hours, the long tour of everything takes three hours too, but the short tour - including fields, cemetery and church - takes only 45 minutes.

The Hôtel de Ville in Auvers-sur-Oise was also touched by Vincent's brush.

Another brochure has three distinct tours too, and later I see it has left off the jaunt down to the river Oise - which Dimitri later tells me is close and I don't believe it, because most of the time the river is not in sight.

Anyhow, I suppose by following the wrong brochure's tour, I take a look at Vincent's church. The total view of this is spoiled by some trees that the good burgers of Auvers have placed in the way, but today's sky matches Vincent's so it is nearly okay.

On the way around and uphill to the cemetery there is at least one more posted painting repro, titled 'La Pluie.' This is out of character for today's weather.

The woods stop at the top of the valley's north side and the fields begin where it is flat. The cemetery's wall marks the dividing line between different kinds of plantations, but they are all under the same sky.

A cemetery surrounded by harmless fields needs a substantial wall for some reason. Vincent must have noticed this butphoto: statute van gogh by zadkine if he did, he ignored it, even though he is in it, since 1890. His brother Théo followed him by six months, and side by side they share the sky and a well-aged sunflower.

A road leads west through fields from the cemetery and halfway to the trees beyond there is another repro painting posted, showing a heaving sea of wheat, with what looks like a flock of mixed-up bats - which are really crows.

Zadkine's standing portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.

From the looks of it now, the field has been harvested - perhaps weeks ago - and although a tractor is going back and forth strewing something around in it - there are no crows visible.

According to the psycho-interpretation, Vincent felt this scene - the final one he painted - 'to be sad because of the immensity of its solitude,' but was quoted as not being 'bothered' by painting it.

Nevertheless, on Sunday, 27. July 1890 he left the Auberge Ravoux and came halfway up the hill and shot himself with a rifle. Then he buttoned up his blue working jacket to conceal the bloodstains on his shirt and returned to his room at the Auberge, where he died early in the morning of the 29th, with Théo at his side.

Preoccupied by this, I decide to skip the large-looking 'Daubigny Maison-Atelier' attraction and I completely overlook the Musée de l'Absinthe in passing, and walk a long way along a pleasant village street to Doctor Gachet's house - which shows no signs of being visitable.

The walk back along the village's main street is also long. If you get to Doctor Gachet's house by the upper road, be sure to return by it too - for it has little traffic and much better views of the village on the flank above the flats beside river.

I've forgotten that on the way to Doctor Gachet's, I stopped at the Château d'Auvers, where I had a drink on its shaded terrace while watching troops of visitors entering the château, to see its 3-D multimedia show.

A brochure says this will give the viewer an impression of leaving Paris in 1870 and coming out here to crossphoto: church, auvers the paths of Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Zola or Maupassant. The same brochure also says Absinthe was a 'myth,' consumed by a lot of artists, which caused a lot of 'ink to flow.'

Ah, the church - the one Vincent turned into magic.

I don't really mind not getting the details about either of these 'myths.' In Auvers-sur-Oise you should be able to overlook these little fairy tales, and be perfectly satisfied with what there is to see.

Regardless of the length of tour or which one, regardless of the over-posted repros of paintings, and possibly regardless of the weather - which has been rarely uncharacteristic today - regardless of everything, getting close to Vincent in spirit is probably easier at Auvers than at the Musée d'Orsay.

Back at the train station, the local finally arrives for the short run to Pontoise - where there are nine or ten tracks to chose from, with apparently either the Gare du Nord or Saint-Lazare as destinations. At Pontoise there is also a RER 'C' line station, so this is another possibility as transport.

The Pontoise SNCF station seems to be fairly new. It has lots of train arrival and departure video displays substituting for clear directions to anywhere. If you have to wait for a train, you may be amused to see other passengers acting as confused by this as I am.

On the way to Auvers, the train going thatphoto: graveyard, auvers way may be on the tracks closest to the station, which I think is named 'voie 11.' On the way back, the destinations of Gare du Nord and Saint-Lazare may be served by trains using two different platforms, on any tracks numbered from 12 to 20.

For the rest of time, Vincent and Théo rest side by side, inside this gate and wall.

For this bit of the excursion, if the day is hot and fairly cloudless, bringing a couple of litres of water is recommended.

Auvers-sur-Oise has at least two Web sites, one for the château and one for the 'impressionists.'

The Château d'Auvers is closed on Mondays, as are the Musée Daubigny - also closed Tuesdays, the Atelier Daubigny - also closed Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Musée d'Absinthe is only open on weekends - except in summer, when it is open from Wednesday to Sunday. The Auberge Ravoux is open daily from 10:00 to 18:00.

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