From top: Van Gogh self portrait (1889); David Langwallner
Several years ago, an estimable French lawyer and former student invited me to Arles Clara De La Barriere and I accepted. My abiding memories of the same are mad driving, utter unbridled conversation and constant chain smoking, a similar experience Clive James had with Francoise Sagan, the author of Bonjour Tristesse (1955).
On a disconnected note, but seriously relevant at one level, in the University Milan, where I gave an Innocence Project talk, Professor Luca Puparia, an estimable man, but I suspect a deeply religious man, took me to a lovely little church full of Christian bones and skeletons, an ossuary. Perhaps it was a lesson, or an intimation of the sort of lesson I have always resisted in Ireland and will continue to resist as the light dies for many in these awful times.
Santuario Di San Bernardo, just a 10-minute walk from the Duomo, but it was a world apart.Well, I do not want to meet my maker yet, Luca, and not be thrown to the lions by religious or corporate fascists or mad dog police officers or neo-conservative socialist totalitarians. Eros not Thanatos. I have a lot more to offer and they do not, nor ever had they anything to offer. Worth nothing. But they are running Ireland, the Neo Liberal Universe and now the world. As The Irish Times publishes an infomercial for the Chinese way of life.
More to the point, like Christopher Hitchens expressed beautifully in Mortality, I am afraid I shall resist conversion. It is uncivilised and I am unsaveable? There is no afterlife? The persecution of the Christians evident in the ossuary is yet another example of awful human barbarism such as the Crusades or the destruction of Inca civilisation by venereal disease, on behalf of the church. But with compassion, Christian or secular, l vote in favour of keeping one’s options, like Voltaire, open.
More pertinent in Milan is Santa Maria Dele Grazier, thrice seen, and of course Da Vinci’s restored but battered Last Supper. Now, I am not a fan of the clunky prose and dubious speculations of Dan Brown but, if one looks closely at the figure of Judas, it is in fact a woman, in my view, so arguably the suppression of the church of the gospel of Mary Magdalene among other suppressions is relevant.
And the church, of course, has much to conceal. The suppression and concealment of the church of sex abuse but, even more pertinently, financial corruption. The settlement of the Magdalene Laundries, long after everyone is dead, but no compensation to be awarded as the statute of limitations has expired and all that remains is the comfort of souls. The madness of Catholicism; the spiritual statute of limitations; token atonement well after the event; and a state apology of mixed emotional resonance and dubious sincerity without financial implications. The awfulness of the Irish state and their apparatchiks who write cover-up reports.
I visited another Catholic bone ossuary subsequently in Kunta Hera in the Czech Republic when a visiting professor. I am a terrible cultural omnivore, and it had the same effect in terms of memory and reflection, memory of the history of infamy as detailed above.
But, of course, the main reason for the visit to Arles if she, Clara, will allow me to say so was not her delightful presence and the fascinating discussion, but the opportunity to visit Avignon which, apart from all other cultural reasons, is the home of Vincent Van Gogh or rather the end of his career in an asylum near Avignon in Arles.
Vincent van Gogh thus had his final days in a sanatorium for the mentally ill before, of course, slashing his ears and killing himself, well documented in a succession of paintings. The fate of many artists or creative people in our time.
In Arles, there is a newly constituted Van Gogh museum with several often-reproduced paintings but some originals. While I was visiting, a rainstorm hit and I was caught in the museum in Arles.
From the window, at mid-level, I saw in absolute particularity, Van Gogh’s most famous painting (above) and the crows did in fact rise in the rainstorm and it was exactly thus. But ominous.
Now, he is much celebrated as one of the great romantic expressionists artists and the works are incredible – best seen in the museum in Amsterdam, the most ambiguous of cities with its ordered Protestantism and utter decadence hand in glove. I prefer British Puritanism to Dutch, as it’s less ambiguous and at least one knows what one is meeting.
The association of mental illness or dysfunctionality with great artistry is overly romanticised but one must understand that there is symmetry between genius and a degree of social awkwardness and obsession. And Vincent seems curiously prescient for our times. Why?
First, I think the emphasis on simple café-side simplicity and convivial company in increasingly fraught times is important. Simplicity of living, if possible, and sociability is now exceedingly difficult – even as a barrister taking human, but not humane, remote instructions.
Second, the great representative paintings are about either self-inflicted human suffering or about the simplicity of nature, as in the crows breaking over the cornfield, though a dark image of flight and departure.
The Sunflowers, in their many forms and incarnations, are a kind of atavistic return to the primeval and that which is essential in human existence. Chrome yellow, environmental roundedness as the sunstorm hits over Vancouver causing heatstroke deaths in the most liveable city in the planet?
The best representation of The Sunflowers is in the Courtauld Gallery in London, in my view, or the Met in New York which I also had the privilege of visiting on an Innocence Project trip to Manhattan.
But starry night, sunflowers, cornfields, simplicity of living and human interaction. A return to the light and real human value of aesthetic appreciation of the environment and simple living, moderate values even religious, a sense of justice, the avoidance of destruction but also of destructive capitalism.
However, our most severe condemnation should be reserved for: Those that murder (for that is what it is) children and babies in the Magdalene Laundries and cover them up in useless reports and time delays with a very belated and pointless acts of apology, whilst enlisting statist lawyers to invoke the statute of limitations.
But is there a statue of limitations on slavery including but not limited to child trafficking, infanticide and frankly torture? Such are obligations Ergo Omnes and Crimes Against Humanity.
It is children and vulnerable adults who suffer the most in this twisted universe denied worship, movement and liberty. Much of the world is turning into a Magdalene ossuary while many are driven to the insane asylum.
So, Vincent is relevant and those of an increasingly narrow centre have much to say and need to be taken seriously.
David Langwallner is a barrister specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish Innocence Project and was Irish Lawyer of the Year at the 2015 Irish Law Awards. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner
Paintings via Van Gogh Museum