On the border of France and Germany, in the enchanting region of Alsace, sits the ancient town of Strasbourg. She’s the sort of beauty that can bring tears to your eyes– really. The ancient cathedral that pops up like a startled giant as you turn the corner of a tight, wending alley; the rustic half-timbered houses that are painted in cheery colors as a brace against the moody fog of winter mornings in Europe; the myriad small, exquisite restaurants nestled into the tiny crannies of the old town; and the thriving modern art that pulses of youth and energy. This is the town of Strasbourg to me. A fairytale town, both in and out of time– existing somehow as a real, brick and mortar (or wattle and daub) city, but also, so clearly, a space of literal enchantment where you are transported back to a different time, a different world, both fabulous and fierce.
And this is one of the reasons why the terror attack this past week, on the edge of the Strasbourg Christmas market, strikes hard with a poignancy and earthy tragedy. It shouldn’t happen in such a beautiful place. Senseless violence in a fairytale city. It shouldn’t happen.
But it has happened before in this place and others of its ilk. Because what is the stuff of fairytales, anyway? Dire cruelty always runs through their marrow: just after the achingly beautiful characters capture our hearts, just before we convince ourselves that there is a happily ever after, we get to the bones of the story. And, there at the core, we find violence, malevolence, jealousy. Ugliness.
Strasbourg has known its share of ugliness over the centuries: famine, border wars, plague, the German occupation of WWII. There was even The Dancing Plague of 1518– in true fairytale fashion, a plague that was by equal measures farcical and grotesque. (Honestly, look it up– it’s a bizarre episode that has zombie-overtones and a possible psychogenic explanation.)
What I can’t decide today, my heart aching for Strasbourg (and for all of us in a world marred by cruelty), is whether this fairytale cycle of ugliness and hope, of cruelty and resilience, lifts me up in a moment of sadness or deflates my sense that our better angels will ever truly win out.
All I know is, while hope doesn’t prevent the ugliness, the cut to the bone, it refuses to end the narrative there.
I woke up this morning to the news that two Van Gogh paintings, stolen 14 years ago, have been found in Italy. (The news blurb can be found here.) After 14 years, there was no expectation that these paintings would ever come back home to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and it’s fair to say that the museum director was absolutely giddy with excitement when the news broke: “‘The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for,'” said museum director Axel Ruger. ‘We have been waiting for this moment for 14 years.'”
If Mr. Ruger had a fatted calf at hand, or if artwork was inclined to dine, for that matter, I’m sure a great feast would be in the works. In fact, I imagine that a great feast and homecoming celebration are in the works anyhow–centering around the returning art, but fattening up the people who are ecstatic to welcome it. How could you not celebrate the return of two Van Gogh paintings? At the very least, you must revel in the return of the property: reportedly worth over 30 million dollars. But beyond the quantifying, there is the qualifying value of Van Gogh. The beauty, the daring, and . . . that other thing about Van Gogh. That thing, that hard to explain thing.
Is it me, or is there something radically personal about Van Gogh and his art? In every way, he and his art are prodigal. And because of that, they are life. Your life, my life, each moment of life that is extravagant. The simple beauty of the crisp starry night that we had here in Florida last night– so mundane, I suppose, but so vibrant when you actually look up to notice it (and though the sky is not swirling, the breeze on your cheek gives the world that effect, if only you will notice).
Or the moment when you look in the mirror and actually see yourself today, as you are and without judgment, erasing the 20-some years of what you thought you looked like (and maybe what you still look like in the right light, with your hair done just so, and your makeup expertly in place)– but at 50 years old, in the stark morning light, before you have raised your facade to meet the world, you find new movement to your face and new tones in your skin. The jowls are sliding here, the eyes crinkle there, the furrows are surely evolving from expression lines to permanent fixtures. You see the shade of your ancestors in your own face– and you recognize the movement and energy, and changing moods, of Van Gogh’s own self portraits. (Some people try to uncover a descent into madness in his shifting self portraits– I see only lighting, only mood, only the natural movements and shifts of life. Changeable; life is nothing if not changeable.)
On the prodigality of his art, it is interesting to note that the two works that are returning home are early works– a traditional seascape and landscape with church. They are lovely, but don’t show the hallmark of his later works–the lavish, thick paint (a month’s wages spent on one painting!) and movement that so well expresses mood and vigor. If the earlier works capture moments in everyday life, the later works both capture and release those moments, those energies.
Sure, his work is pretty and bright, but that’s not what instills such fervor in his followers. Why has my family pursued him in Paris, shadowed his footsteps in Arles, and greedily devoured his work in the form of a birthday cake? What inspires that devotion?
It’s the capture and release that gets us. The energy remains. We feel the life, experience the life, rather than just observing it.
Or maybe it’s the sheer prodigality– in every sense. Van Gogh went full throttle into his art–whole tubes of paint smeared across a canvas, skies that move and refuse to stand still on a static canvas, and his proclivity for running headlong into his own canvases (on good days and bad, with ear or without). Full throttle.
Did you know that Van Gogh left school early (out of financial necessity) to work as a dealer in an art gallery? When that life turned sour, he threw himself into his faith and began to teach and then minister in the Church. But in time it was clear that he didn’t fit the Church’s mold and he was released from his post. He turned back to art, but as an artist, not a dealer. Full throttle, he painted himself into the canvas, he became the creator.
But, eventually, disaster. The well told tale is of an unstable artist who died at his own hand, mad and destitute. But that’s just one narrative, and recent investigations have brought that story into question. . . because, even in death, he won’t stand still. Prodigals have a way of returning.
And, today, we can celebrate the fact that their art does too.
Left: Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night (on Place du Forum) Arles,1888
Right: Same spot, ‘Le Café La Nuit’ on Place du Forumin daylight, Arles, 2016
The spot may be less picturesque on a bright spring morning in 2016, but it’s still vibrant enough to cast its light into the darker streets. Notice the yellow shirt on the passerby? In my mind, it’s really a plain white tee that takes the gold cast once he steps within the fabled space of the Café Terrace . After he strolls on past, it resumes its ho-hum identity as a plain white tee. (How could it possibly be otherwise?)