American writer Janet Malcolm in her book Reading Chekhov describes going to Yalta (in Russia on the Black Sea), following in Russian author Anton Chekhov’s footsteps. She sits on a bench looking at the view that characters in his short story ‘Lady with the Dog’ (1899) looked at. She says: “I am a character in a new drama: the absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim who leaves the magical pages of a work of genius and travels to an ‘original scene’ that can only fall short of his expectations.” (p. 4)
I read this short story five years ago when staying in Burgundy, but not on a literary pilgrimage. I have never undertaken a literary pilgrimage, but I have been on ‘art pilgrimages’ – at least, one art tour, in particular, I regard as an ‘art pilgrimage’ – it was through various parts of France over 10 years ago. I couldn’t resist putting in this image with a nice conjunction of literature and art – Chekhov and Matisse once stayed here on their first visits to Nice. Chekhov went for his health, the reason he also went to Yalta.
Was my art pilgrimage just as absurd and were my expectations met? What were my expectations? To see (and photograph) what the famous artist saw? Except of course, I am 100 and more years late and the scene has altered – although usually still recognisable or I wouldn’t have found it. To compare the current scene with what the artist saw? Except, of course, the artist may have used ‘artistic licence’ and painted something that was in his imagination as much as in front of him. Sometimes I wanted to see a studio or a house where the artist lived or painted, or their grave.
But in Paris I had fun trying to find artists’ former studios, houses, scenes … the houses were usually easiest to find as there were often plaques on them. In case you’re thinking I had to do a lot of research to find these – generally, no. There are guide books that give the locations, especially in Paris.
In Collioure, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain famously ‘invented’ fauvism with its bright unreal colours, but when we were there it was raining. The contrast between the art and reality as we saw it that day was particularly striking. Also, there weren’t as many ‘picturesque’ boats as in their paintings – perhaps they are not as efficient as more modern ones or are more expensive to maintain.
In Auvers-sur-Oise, there were helpful signs displaying the artwork, so there was no chance of a serendipitous moment of discovery. But without them it would have been hard to find ‘wheat field with crows’ as there was no wheat or crows and it was misty, when we were there. In fact I wrote that the wheat had been harvested, but I did hear a couple of crows! From the fields I “decided to go and see the house of the hanged man (Cezanne painting) but I didn’t realise it was so far. We passed the Chateau then Dr Gachet’s house. Came to a crossroads that both Cezanne and Corot painted but realised ‘pendu’s’ house was too far so headed back to the bus.”
Perhaps Etretat on the Normandy coast came closest to meeting my expectations… at least the weather and the views were good; not that Monet or Courbet always painted it in good weather.
In Arles I found many of the scenes that Van Gogh painted during his stay. The yellow house where he (and briefly, Gauguin) lived was destroyed in World War Two but I found its location.
The cafe where he painted the famous night scene is easy to find as it’s been renamed ‘Cafe Van Gogh’:
In Brittany, there were many opportunities as it has long been a painters’ paradise:
At Pont Aven, Gauguin and others painted on regular painting sojourns. Monet painted on Belle Ile – and we saw the room where he stayed. But again the weather was misty when we were there.
My visit to Cezanne’s studio was memorable as some of the objects in his ‘still lifes’ are still there – as is the large gap in the wall needed to get out large canvases.
And, of course, Monet’s garden at Giverny is so visited that it hardly counts as part of an ‘art pilgrimage’.
Sometimes the search for ‘affinities’ can go a bit far, as even I recognise with these two images – but they are both on the banks of the Seine!
The lecturer of the university course I did on pilgrimage would have argued that these sort of trips are not pilgrimages, as in his view the term applies only to a journey to a sacred or holy site. In our secular age, art museums are often seen as the new temples. However, I don’t claim to have had any sort of transcendental experience on my trip; so perhaps not really a pilgrimage after all, but it was enjoyable!
 Janet Malcolm, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, New York, Random House, c2001. It is a very well written and interesting book, even if you’re not a great Chekhov fan. As an aside, she also stayed at the Yalta Hotel, which she describes thus: “I caught my breath at its spectacular ugliness. It is a monstrous building – erected in 1975 with a capacity of twenty-five hundred people – it is like a brute’s blow in the face of the countryside. Its scale would be problematic anywhere and on the hillside above Yalta it is catastrophic.” (p. 7). I stayed there many years ago, and yes, I’m sure it is ugly, but in comparison with some of the accommodation we had in what was then the Soviet Union, the Yalta Hotel seemed like luxury (in fact, I described it in a postcard as ‘lovely’. Sorry, Janet! But I think this judgement related to comfort and not aesthetics – I hope so, anyway.)