The new Van Gogh Foundation in Arles by Janice Lert

the new Van Gogh Foundation in Arles 1In the 1980s, when people in Arles began to realize that 100 years had passed since Vincent Van Gogh had set foot in the city, the need was felt to create some kind of artistic homage to the famous artist who had immortalized their city in his portraits and landscapes. As a result, in 1983 Yolande Clergue, wife of the Arlesian photographer Lucien Clergue, created the Van Gogh Association. Realizing that most 20th century artists owed something to Van Gogh, and knowing that her association would never have the means to possess true Van Gogh paintings, her idea was to invite contemporary artists to contribute works that were inspired by Van Gogh.

Over the years she was able to collect not only paintings by many of the most famous artists of the 20 th century, but also poetry, photography, sculpture, etc. inspired by Vincent and his work. These pieces were exhibited in a building beside the Roman amphitheatre known as the Luppé Palace, getting its name from an Arlesian artist who rebuilt the medieval Romieu town house in the style of a Venetian palace at the beginning of the 20th century to house his studio.

The building was soon known as the Van Gogh Foundation. But Yolande had never registered her association as a foundation, and tax collectors caught up with her. Luc Hoffmann, the founder of the Swiss Hoffmann laboratories, and a long-time inhabitant of Arles, came to her assistance. Thanks to his energetic intervention, the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles was founded on July 8, 2010. Yolande’s collections were transferred from the association to the Foundation.

In the meantime the Luppé Palace had become too small and ill- adapted for exhibiting the growing collection, with its tiny rooms and flights of stairs. A new building was found when the Banque de France left the Léautaud de Donines townhouse which had been its home in Arles for decades. The building belongs to the city, and is located in the heart of the old city. It was completely rehabilitated from head to foot to meet the specific needs of an art museum.

Today we enter through a resolutely modern hall created on the rue du Dr Fanton, whereas the original entrance is located on the south side, on the rue de la Liberté. On this side, a few remaining elements of the 15th century façade can still be admired, including gothic trefoil-arched windows, false Renaissance machicolations and gargoyles under the eaves, as well as projecting mouldings around mullion-and-transom windows.

Inside however very little of the original building has survived. The architectural firm Agence Fluor (Guillaume Avenard and Hervé Schneider) has redesigned the town house so that light reaches into the far corners of new wide-open rooms covering 1000 m². Raphaël Hefti has added a multi-colored installation on the glass-covered terrace, specially designed for the building. This reflects Van Gogh’s own special relationship to the light of Arles and Provence, which so overwhelmed him on his arrival here. Sloping roof sheds let light reach inside without falling directly on the precious works of art. And the view from the top terrace takes in the rooftops of Arles and the powerful Rhône River.

Outside, Bertrand Lavier also added a permanent personal touch by creating the design of the gate on the rue du Dr. Fanton, including the signature that Vincent used on at least one painting done in Arles. Just one room reminds us a little of the former role of the building: it is the bank director’s office where the wood panelling on the walls has been preserved. Here the Foundation can project videos and/or present smaller paintings and objects in the niches in the wainscoting.

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But what does the Foundation have to exhibit? Luc Hoffmann and his daughter Maja know how disappointed visitors are when they realize that Arles does not possess a single painting or drawing by Vincent Van Gogh, in spite of the fact that he gave many of his works to inhabitants of the city to pay for services when he had no money. No one appreciated them at the time and most people were happy to sell them to the highest bidder. So the Hoffmanns were instrumental in negotiating an agreement with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam whereby the Foundation will be able to exhibit at least one original work by Van Gogh on loan from Amsterdam on a rotating basis for the next few years. The opening exhibit in 2014 contained several originals as well as other important works by well-known artists, and attracted a never-ending stream of visitors.

But the purpose of the Foundation, as for the original Van Gogh Association, is to promote contemporary artists and underline the relationship between their works and those of Van Gogh, creating an artistic dialog. So most of the exhibition space is devoted to different currents of contemporary art — abstract art, collages, installations, etc. — with temporary exhibits where living artists have carte blanche to show off their work. Thus the visitor today can see exhibitions of works by a limited number of contemporary artists, some easily connected to Van Gogh, others who require us to 'stretch' our imagination to create a dialog with the works of Vincent. But the regularly renewed exhibits will bring art lovers back and back again, a boon for any museum!