I’m standing ankle deep in Belgian mud. Above me, the skeleton of a red brick building looms against the gray sky. There are gaping holes in the roof, and patches of grass sprout from the walls. Beneath its concrete stilts, creeping vines have taken root. It’s almost bucolic. I look down at the small stone marker at my feet, a nondescript slab marking the mineshaft. It was here in 1879 that Vincent Van Gogh, then an evangelical pastor from the Netherlands, descended 2,300 feet underground into the Marcasse coal mine.
“I went on a very interesting excursion not long ago; the fact is, I spent six hours in a mine, in one of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the area, no less,” Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo. And on this winter day in the 125th anniversary year of the great artist’s death, I’m gaping at the mine’s remains, listening to a recording of the letter.
Filip Depuydt, my guide through Belgium’s Borinage region, less than 60 miles southwest of Brussels, adjusts his audio player as the recorded voice cuts through the stillness with Van Gogh’s words:
“At first sight everything around it has something dismal and deathly about it. The workers are emaciated and pale due to fever, and they look exhausted and haggard, weather-beaten and prematurely old . . . . All around the mine are poor miners’ dwellings with a couple of dead trees, completely black from the smoke, and thorn-hedges, dung-heaps and rubbish dumps, mountains of unusable coal and Maris would make a beautiful painting of it.” (He was referring to the Dutch painter Jacob Maris.)
Van Gogh’s experiences during his stay here in the Borinage affected him so profoundly that he would decide to devote his life to art.
As we slosh through the mud toward the street in the town of Wasmes, we stop to chat with Nadine Gravis, who, in 1993, bought the property with her husband Riccardo Barberio, the son of a miner. Marcasse was officially closed in 1953 after a devastating accident left 24 dead.
A shrine at the entrance commemorating the lives lost in that catastrophe is decorated with colorful porcelain flowers and candles, and a statue of a miner, his face smeared black, pushes a cart full of coal. But of Van Gogh, Nadine says, “Many local people don’t even know about this important story.”
That’s about to change, because nearby Mons, the town best known to Americans for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, has been crowned this year’s “European Capital of Culture” — a title it shares with the Czech town of Pilsen. Mons also lies in the heart of Belgium’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, and a host of new museums and cutting-edge venues reflect this high-tech culture.
One of the highlights of the year’s action-packed program is the exhibition “Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist,” currently showing at the Fine Arts Museum (BAM) in Mons. On April 24-26, the Colfontaine commune will put on an event called “The Crazy Legend of Van Gogh.” And in May, the picturesque Grand Place in Mons will showcase a labyrinth planted with 8,000 Van Gogh-inspired sunflowers.
The popular obsession with Vincent Van Gogh is as much about his life’s legend as his art. The narrative revolves around his troubled mental state; the artist famously cut off his own ear and later committed suicide. But in a Vanity Fair article in December, biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith offer new forensic evidence challenging the long-established notion of suicide. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors argue that Van Gogh was accidentally shot and killed by a young acquaintance.) Recently, the curators of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum reorganized the collection to place it in historic context, showing Van Gogh’s work in relation to other artists of the time, thereby separating his oeuvre from the “Van Gogh myth.”
I’m often drawn to the post-impressionist galleries at the Orsay museum in Paris, where I live. There are two intimate rooms where some of Van Gogh’s masterpieces, painted at the height of his artistic career in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, both in France, can be admired up close. In these paintings, like “Starry Night,” the exuberant colors, the thick paint, the generous brush strokes seem to express a profound joy and optimism. In “Mademoiselle Gachet in Her Garden at Auvers-sur-Oise,” the canvas depicts nature in riotous growth, as green tendrils cover the subject’s skirt, and flowers, in white blobs of paint, seem to jump out of the painting. “The Siesta” captures the sweet repose of two peasants napping in the sunshine beneath a hay bale.
So when I hear about Belgium’s new exhibition, I book my train ticket to Mons ($78, at the attractive exchange rate of 1.16 dollars to the euro), just two hours from Paris’s Gare du Nord station, to coincide with the opening for Mons 2015 — a festive, all-night celebration, open to everyone, lit up with Belgian wit and whimsy.
Strolling the cobblestone streets, I stumble upon large-scale art installations: dancing robots, flower pots filled with flames, live concerts. I eat fabulous frites and discover a delicious cheese, made by artisan fromager Jacquy Cange with local Car d’Or beer. Illuminated with a sparkling disco ball, the Grand Place becomes the giant stage for a party, dancers decked out in silver ponchos. In the democratic spirit of Mons 2015, everything is free of charge.
I join one of Filip’s walking tours to get a deeper sense of Van Gogh’s 14 total months in the Borinage. In the 19th century, the Borinage was the European continent’s largest industrialized region devoted solely to coal mining. Thousands of workers, many of them immigrants from Italy, came to work in the mines, forever altering the landscape and its people. Van Gogh was just 26 when he arrived in the impoverished land on a six-month post as a Protestant missionary.
“Van Gogh studied theology, but he decided it was just words. He wanted to live and work with the poor people in this community,” says Filip, who led his first Van Gogh tour in April 2012 for a group of schoolteachers in the hope they would spread the word to their students.
“What started it all was when I discovered the terrible state of the Maison Denis, the little house in Petit-Wasmes where Van Gogh rented a room,” he explains. “I felt compelled to do something to save it before the walls came down. My guided walks are meant to raise awareness of Van Gogh’s heritage sites in the Borinage, which is a rather unknown period of Vincent’s life.”
As we stop to check out the progress of the house’s renovation, Filip points out the salon du bébé on Rue du Bois — where Van Gogh hosted weekly Bible readings to a packed house. The so-called “baby’s room” was not named after
l’Enfant-Jésus, as I had assumed, but got its name from a pagan festival involving a baby doll and a procession. We walk the set of stairs that Van Gogh descended daily and continue in a lane skirting a field that’s a brilliant Technicolor green even in winter.
In hearing the recordings of Van Gogh’s letters, I’m struck by how he described the region’s landscapes in terms of paintings:
“There was snow these last few days, the dark days before Christmas. Then everything was reminiscent of the medieval paintings by Peasant Bruegel . . . so good at expressing the singular effect of red and green, black and white. . . .” And: “There are sunken roads here, overgrown with thorn-bushes and with old, twisted trees with their gnarled roots, which look exactly like that road in the etching by Dürer, ‘The Knight and Death.’ ”
We arrive at the Église Protestante Evangélique de Petit-Wasmes, the church that was built 18 years after Van Gogh left the region. Following the region’s architectural tradition, the small building was constructed in red brick. Inside, it’s simple and unadorned, illuminated with natural light from large windows. Pastor Luigi Davi is waiting for us.
“Van Gogh may not have left anything tangible here,” Davi says, “for many of his drawings were used to light fires to heat the miners’ houses, but his spirit lives on in the community.” Giving away his clothes and sleeping on the floor of a hut, Van Gogh abolished all distance between himself and the suffering population.
“He felt compelled to emulate the first Christians,” Davi explains. “Even though the official inspection team from the church thought he was crazy, disgracing the church’s image, and didn’t renew his contract after six months, the people saw Van Gogh as embodying the gospel in deeds, not words.”
Van Gogh stories are still told today. Davi plays a radio interview from the 1970s, in which a villager, who grew up with her grandparents, described their frequent conversations about “Monsieur Vincent.” Unaware of his later artistic success, they spoke of “an infinite gratitude to God for having sent them such a servant.” He scraped coal; helped pregnant women carry their loads; cared for the injured after a mine explosion. “Vincent was an angel,” they repeated.
Some of Van Gogh’s sketches that did survive this period are displayed in the “Van Gogh in the Borinage” exhibition at the BAM. “There wasn’t much — only enough to display on a table. So our goal was to explore how the choices Van Gogh made in the Borinage echo throughout his career,” explains Sjraar Van Heugten, the curator.
These early drawings are somber and almost crude, I decide, compared with Van Gogh’s masterful letter-writing skills. After his fallout with the church establishment, Van Gogh returned to Cuesmes, Belgium, where — with the encouragement of Theo (an art dealer) — he made a conscious effort to learn the artistic process. He studied anatomy and made hundreds of copies of famous works (such as Jean-François Millet’s “The Sower”). Not a naturally gifted artist, he worked really hard at it.
“For me it’s a matter of learning to draw well, to be master either of my pencil or my charcoal or my brush,” he wrote to Theo in September 1880. “Once that’s achieved, I’ll do good things almost no matter where, and the Borinage is every bit as picturesque as old Venice, Arabia, Brittany, Normandy, Picardy or Brie.”
The real-life scenes he translated onto the page — the miners, the cottages he called “human nests”— are themes that echo throughout his career. The exhibition traces Van Gogh’s evolution, contrasting early depictions of soot-stained miners with the weavers and peasants that populate his later paintings.
The following day, I hop on a bus back into the Borinage. On Filip’s recommendation, I want to hike up one of the slag heaps. The landscape is dotted with these man-made mountains, filled with mining’s waste material. Since the mines closed, the area has been marked by high unemployment, and there’s great hope that Mons 2015 will have a profoundly positive socioeconomic effect on one of northern Europe’s poorest regions.
Just 10 minutes outside of Mons, I get off at PASS (Parc d’Aventures Scientifiques), a former mine that’s now an “adventure park.” The slag heap appears as a wooded mountain looming at the edge of the parking lot. I follow an old railway that’s been converted to a bike path, and veer onto a dirt track lined with birch trees. As I hike uphill to higher elevations, I step through patches of melting snow.
The slag heap still contains a lot of coal that’s in a state of slow combustion. As a result, these terrils are warm and green with life, covered with vegetation (like butterfly bushes) that you don’t normally find in chilly Belgium. A carpet of electric-green moss covers the black rubble. I notice how the birches’ white trunks perch at odd angles as the ground shifts.
I pause at the top to take in the views: the fog hanging over the fields, sprinkled with cottages, smoke curling from the chimneys. Looking down at my feet, I’m startled to see steam rising from the ground. I get down on my hands and knees to investigate, and the earth is warm to the touch. Suddenly I see buds sprouting on a tree, despite the freezing temperatures.
And I think: Van Gogh would’ve made a glorious painting of it.
Mary Winston Nicklin is a freelance writer based in Paris. Her Web site is www.marywinstonnicklin.com.
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“Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist” will be at BAM Mons until May 17. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Entry is $17 per person. Discounted rate (for students, etc.) is $13.
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For Mons 2015, the two-hour tour with Filip Depuydt takes place on Saturday mornings. The price is $13 per person and can be booked online at www.visitmons.be.