Looking for van Gogh in Belgium’s mining district.
Earlier this month, Nellie wrote for the Daily about van Gogh’s time in the Borinage and its effect on his art. In this follow-up piece, she reflects on her own travels in the region.
On a sunny but cool afternoon in mid March, I stood on the muddy ground of a closed and abandoned mine in Belgium. Behind me, a handful of pigs screamed from inside a pen in one of the decrepit buildings. A large, lean, mean-looking dog, which in fact was not mean at all, stood nearby, tethered to a long rope.
It was my first time in this place, the former mining district of Belgium, called the Borinage, though I spent the nearly six years prior writing a novel that took place there. From 1878 to 1880, before he declared himself an artist, Vincent van Gogh lived in the Borinage, trying to be a preacher, and the story of what may have happened during that time is my novel’s subject. I didn’t go to Belgium while I was researching or writing the book—the mines are all closed these days and the area developed; I told myself there was no point in going if it didn’t look just like it had in the late nineteenth century. But Mons, the city that sits right at the tip of the Borinage region, is this year’s selection for the European Capital of Culture and, as a result, is home to all sorts of interesting exhibits and performances, including the first-ever exhibition of van Gogh’s work from and related to this period of his life: it opened, strangely, just a few weeks after my book had been published. It was a coincidence too odd to ignore, and I got on a plane to go see this place I had long imagined.
I have been struggling to articulate what this visit was like in any coherent way. I knew, all those years, that the place I was envisioning was real, but in my mind it was a place that no longer existed, a place to be conjured and imagined, not to stand on with two real feet. To be confronted with the reality of the place in physical space was quite a different thing. I expected that there would be nothing left. In a way I was right, and in a way very wrong.
By the time he left the Borinage in 1880, van Gogh was really no longer welcome there. With the exception of a few souls who seem to have appreciated his genius, by the end the majority of people in the mining district thought him crazy and treated him either with derision or with pity. Is this why the places where he lived and worked there were so long neglected? It is only really now, I learned, with the exhibit and the Capital of Culture designation bringing attention to the region, that the place is beginning to claim him.
One of the people I met, Filip Depuydt, has been pretty much single-handedly handling van Gogh tourism in the area for the last number of years, a duty he adopted purely out of his own interest in the story. A local had once pointed at an abandoned, dilapidated house and told him van Gogh had lived there—this was when Filip took up the call to bring attention back to the story of the time and the preservation of the landmarks related to it. Now, because of the exhibit in Mons, placemats in restaurants all over the city boast one of van Gogh’s paintings, The Sower, a copy of a Millet painting, which van Gogh painted and re-painted many times, of a man moving down a field throwing seeds. There’s also tiny exhibit devoted to the Hollywood visit to the area in 1960 to film Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas as van Gogh. Recorded interviews with villagers include one with a man who was so smitten with the experience that he kept, as a souvenir, all the money he’d been paid to appear as an extra in the film, though it was enough to pay his rent for an entire year.
These days, one of the houses that van Gogh lived in in the area has been completely renovated, the outside preserved to look as it once did but the inside completely modernized, turned into a tiny museum—and a second house he lived in, directly across from the once active mine, is now undergoing renovation to become a place for artists. (The sole untouched detail: the well behind the house in a wooden shed—perhaps the only place in the whole region that you can see something untouched that Vincent once used.) The Salon du Bébé, the room where Vincent preached to the villagers, is nothing now but a plaque on a door in between two houses.
In April of 1879, Vincent wrote to his brother:
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, called Marcasse. This mine has a bad name because so many die in it, whether going down or coming up, or by suffocation or gas exploding, or because of water in the ground, or because of old passageways caving in and so on. It’s a somber place, and at first sight everything around it has something dismal and deathly about it. The workers there are usually people, emaciated and pale owing to fever, who look exhausted and haggard, weather-beaten and prematurely old, the women generally sallow and withered. All around the mine are poor miners’ dwelling with a couple of dead trees, completely black from smoke, and thorn-hedges, dung-heaps and rubbish dumps, mountains of unusable coal.
Standing inside the mine grounds now, it is hard to conjure van Gogh’s vision; the place, crumbling slowly back into the earth, seems so harmless. In addition to the pigs and the mean-looking nice dog, a pack of horses use the mine grounds as their roaming pasture. The huge and once no doubt majestic concrete ramp leading from the shaft building to where the coal refuse was once dumped—now a towering mountain covered with shrubs, and still, as Filip pointed out, smoking in places as the coal combusts—tapers off into nowhere. There’s no way anyone would know that van Gogh was once there, was once below the earth just where we stood, except for a patch of graffiti on one of the buildings, with the telltale red hair and narrow face. A lovely, squat woman and her husband bought the mine a few years back to have a place to keep their animals. Why not? It must have been cheap.
I spent so many years living in a world in my head that was just as unreal as any other fictional world, and yet, strangely, there is a real place on this earth that corresponds to it. It was only when in Belgium that I learned how to correctly pronounce so many words that I used to claim places in my novel, words that lived, mispronounced, in my head for years. But does this interfere in any way, really, with my relationship to the story? The world that lived in my imagination still lives there. It hasn’t changed since seeing the real place; somehow, though, seeing the real place has affected me. I suppose the point is my imagined world was never real.
And yet, and yet.
If historical fiction of the kind I’ve written is about bringing back the past, or reaching from the present to the past to try to touch it; if it’s about using all the tools of our imaginations to erase the years between then and now, to inhabit another time and place with full knowledge that we have no way of really “getting it right” … then to be confronted with the fact of the real place, falling down and neglected or refurbished and renovated, but either way changed, lends a feeling both of exhilaration and of sorrow. Seeing the actual place, I met with the reality that the past is past, that now we are just left with a collection of once-places that are now other places and can never be otherwise. The story is no longer being lived. Except in hearts, maybe, or in minds—and isn’t this why we write books in the first place?
Nellie Hermann was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her second novel, The Season of Migration, was published in January. She is the creative director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and has taught and lectured widely on the use of creativity in nontraditional contexts.