Van Gogh’s bridges – then and now

Vincent van Gogh went to Arles in search of Japan – according to David Dale, author of A traveller’s alphabet of essential places. In reality he was looking for the light and colours that he saw in Japanese prints, and he found them in Arles. This post is about how we bridged the distance between France and Japan through Van Gogh’s paintings.

He did several versions of the Pont Langlois bridge at Arles in southern France. The original bridge traversed the Arles-to-Bouc canal and was a simple but functional drawbridge enabling canal boats to pass underneath when raised. A series of these bridges were built along the canal in the first half of the 19th century. The one nearest Arles was called Pont de Réginel but was more popularly known for its keeper, Monsieur Langlois – hence it was known as Langlois’ bridge.

Pont Langlois

Pont Langlois [source: Wikipedia]

I had heard that the bridge was still around and could be seen today. Actually, that’s not quite true, as we found. The original bridge became structurally unsound and was replaced in the 1930s by a concrete bridge – and that in turn was destroyed by retreating Germans in 1944 – they destroyed all but one of the bridges along the canal, leaving only the one at Fos sur Mer. This was of the original bridges on the canal and was the same design as the one Van Gogh painted in 1888. In 1959 the Fos bridge was dismantled with a view to relocating it at the site of the Langlois bridge, but the canal had since been widened and it was decided to move it to its current location near the Montcalde Lock. It is not easy to find.

Pont van Gogh, Arles

Pont van Gogh, Arles

It took a few goes and finally, we turned down a little side street on the outskirts of the town and there was Pont Van-Gogh – its new name – restored to working order. Some might consider it a reproduction or a fake, but since it is from the original series and contemporary with the Langlois bridge, by the same builder, I think it is close enough to original. Again I was struck by how accurately Van Gogh represented the structure and how faithfully he painted the chains and support beams and pulleys for raising the bridge.

He painted four oil paintings and one watercolour of the bridge and completed a number of drawings.

Little did I realise that this bridge was a key to his link with Japan. In the late nineteenth century, Europe was Japan crazy – high quality lacquer furniture, boxes, ceramics and pottery were being exported to Europe by the shipload. As it turns out, many of these were wrapped in fine paper prints, some by famous Japanese artists, others, like the prints of Japanese women were adverts for Geishas.

The different perspective and flat use of colour in these images inspired the post-impressionists to look differently at the world. One print that came to Van Gogh was of a famous painting by Hiroshige of the Edo period bridge that led into the Emperor’s palace in the centre of Tokyo. The bridge is depicted in rain and elegant lines and unusual foreshortening inspired Van Gogh to paint a copy.

Hiroshige bridge

Hiroshige bridge [source: Wikipedia]

 And this is Van Gogh’s version:

Van Gogh-Hiroshige bridge

Van Gogh-Hiroshige bridge [source: Wikipedia]

And we found this connection in Tokyo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum – which has a full-size replica of the Edo bridge within the museum. It is extraordinary and surprising how connections turn up in the places you least expect. So here is my photo of the replica bridge in Tokyo

Edo-Tokyo bridge

Edo-Tokyo bridge

So from a painting in the Musee d’Orsay, to a bridge in the South of France where Van Gogh sought to connect with his vision of Japan seen through a print of a bridge, we found an extraordinary connection with a reproduction bridge in a museum in Tokyo. This is what makes travel so worthwhile!

What connections have you made across the world in unexpected places? Let us know in the comments below 🙂

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Van Gogh’s Yellow House – Arles: Then and now

In May 1888 Vincent Van Gogh rented several rooms at 2 Place Lamartine, near the railway bridges in Arles. He shared the house with Gauguin from late October that year.

“My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter. The shutters a garish green. It is bathed in sunlight and stands on a square with a garden of verdant plane trees, rose laurels and acacias. Inside, I am able to live and breathe to contemplate and paint.”

This was the house of the famous bedroom painting and the chair with pipe.

Van Gogh's yellow House

Van Gogh’s yellow House [source: Wikipedia]

The painting was done in September 1888 – we were there in October 2013 and found the light similar to that discovered by Van Gogh.

The square is still there – complete with its plane trees, but the house was bombed on 25 June 1944 during the liberation of Arles, and demolished shortly afterwards. However, as you can see, the building behind survives to this day along with the railway bridges in the background. The bridges are easily recognised from Van Gogh’s depiction of them.

Site of Yellow House

Site of Yellow House

The house was just two minutes’ walk from the site where he painted the ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’. If you turn around from where this photo was taken you will find a modern ‘Monoprix’ supermarket – so if you are looking for the location, just look for the Monoprix first and it is just across the road.

The Yellow House painting currently hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Starry Night over the Rhone – Arles

This post has moved to which is a travel blog written by Jerry

Follow the link for an updated version of Then and Now: Van Gogh”Starry Night over the Rhone”

Tokyo Skyline – Dealing with time travel

The interesting thing about hurling your body from one side of the planet to the other is that your body clock gets out of synch with the solar day. From France to Tokyo is about a 12 hour flight, but it is also about ten hours further around the globe. Novelist William Gibson referred to jet lag as waiting for your soul to catch up. And it can feel like that!

So how do you deal with it? Well, there are the practical things like ‘drink lots of water’ or ‘stay awake until dark’ – which is generally good advice. And I do all those things and usually adjust within a couple of days. In the meantime you have a wonderful opportunity to take photos that no-one else is awake for.

If your body is ten hours out, you will be quite nocturnal for a while. And let’s face it, late night TV is pretty boring – especially if you can’t understand a word of it. So you look out the window.

In our case, we were on the 16th floor of a hotel and had a great view over the city. This is a great opportunity to take a time series around the day-night cycle. And it goes like this:

First, you’ve unpacked, found some green tea or milk for your coffee, and it’s now late-ish afternoon.

Tokyo afternoon

Tokyo afternoon

Then you have some dinner and lie down exhausted at sun down. By now you are talking gibberish and – in the case of Tokyo – struggling to comprehend the fast array of controls that operate the loo. By you are asleep.

You wake at 1.00AM and your body is refreshed and ready for the…um… day. Even in Tokyo the shops are closed. It’s time for a glass of water – while the light streams in the window from the myriad lights stretching off to the horizon. Time to grab the camera.

Tokyo night

Tokyo night

Don’t forget the circular polarising filter – otherwise you will take great shots of your room reflected in the window. The filter won’t get rid of all reflections, but it will enable you to reduce them. Turn off the room lights – all of them if possible, after setting up your tripod and attaching the remote trigger – now you can do some long exposures and really pull out some detail from that amazing skyline.

Tokyo blimp

Tokyo blimp

Then you lie down again hoping to sleep some more.

Around 4.00AM you are wide awake again. Don’t waste it – grab the camera and check out the pre-dawn light. Now that makes it all worthwhile!

Tokyo dawn

Tokyo dawn

By 6.00AM you are ready to see the city come alive – take the camera and step outside for those big city, deserted streets shots. And the street sweepers, and the setting up of the market stalls and… the possibilities are endless. I’ll do another post on street photography soon 🙂

How do you deal with jet lag? Let me know in the comments 🙂