Dear fellow travellers
Head south-west from the centre of Mons in Belgium, and before long you'll find yourself in the heart of the Borinage, the area described in our quote above from a letter which Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1879 while working in the area as an evangelical preacher. The Borinage lies on the coalfields of southern Belgium, which extend over the frontier into adjacent areas of France. This was once one of Europe's great industrial regions, but falling coal prices in the 1950s led to lay-offs and mine closures. It was the final straw in a litany of despair which extended back to well before the day when the young van Gogh alighted from a train at Pâturages railway station to begin his ministry as a pastor in the coal-mining villages of the Borinage.
Not far from here, there is a vantage spot from where one can see the Borinage with its chimneys, mounds of coal and workers' houses. During the day, there is much activity of black figures which one might mistake for ants. Stands of fir can be picked out on the horizon, with small white houses nearby, small towers, an old mill, etc. Much of the time it seems that a kind of fog hangs over the ensemble, or perhaps it is the capricious play of light and shadows, which reminds one of Rembrandt.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo (1879)
The artist's stay in this impoverished area of southern Belgium is a chapter in van Gogh's life which has largely slipped below the horizon. But here and there across the region, there are reminders of van Gogh's stay: there's a rather appealing bust of van Gogh on a plinth at Place Saint-Pierre in Wasmes. It happens to be by the very distinguished Russian-born sculptor Ossip Zadkine. The house where van Gogh lived for a spell in Cuesmes has been restored and now hosts a small exhibition on the artist's time in the region.
Life wasn't easy in the Borinage in the late nineteenth century. But van Gogh didn't move to the area looking for creature comforts. He went to support the workers who spent their lives bent double, working underground in cramped and dangerous conditions. The miners toiled away with a very justifiable fear of injury and death underground, and van Gogh reacted with enormous compassion to the plight of the miners and their families. But more in words than in images. For at this stage in his life - van Gogh was only in his mid-twenties - the future artist was more preoccupied with evangelisation than with art.
The young minister lived very simply, much in the manner of the miners. But his asceticism won no favours from the church authorities who judged that van Gogh's brand of Christianity was a shade too militant. The pastor's contract wasn't renewed and before long van Gogh was embarking on a new career as an artist supported by his brother Theo who was an art dealer in the Netherlands. Yet something of the Borinage stayed with van Gogh for the rest of his days. Take another look at his pictures and you'll see little cameos of Borinage life and landscapes featuring in his work.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)