Van Gogh in the shadow of Belgium’s coal mines

Author: Martha Hepler   /   Explore, Mons   /  
Something I’ve learned through travelling is that you cannot appreciate a place until you know something of its history, the particular tragedies and triumphs that have made a people, their cities, their landscapes. One interesting tale of Hainaut Province is how its mining industry formed Vincent van Gogh as a painter.
The city of Mons, serving as one of the two European Capital of Culture sites for 2015, highlights this connection in its current exhibit at Beaux-Arts Mons (BAM), Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist. We let my daughter play hookie from preschool on a coal-dust-gray Thursday to take a family trip downtown. The airy modernity of the BAM building contrasts surprisingly with the more mature buildings around it.
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After buying our tickets being required to check all of the things, sadly including our stroller, we began to explore the beginnings of a great artist. English was fully available along with French and Dutch. The exhibit explains van Gogh’s broken dreams of being, among other things, a pastor and evangelist. During his 2-year sojourn in the Borinage coal-mining area outside of Mons, the difficult life of the local miners affected him so strongly that he took to eccentric behavior (for not his first or last time). He lost his church’s endorsement and finally left the measured life of church ministry for the passionate life of art.

Miners in snow, humble country cottages, a skinny old nag, miners carrying heavy loads, deep lines on the face of an overworked man, the weavers with which he was aesthetically infatuated, the sower type that grew to be a theme for him; all are on display here and their echoes are heard through the rest of his work. Though some of his later paintings are included, this is a birth story and van Gogh’s most famous paintings are not here. Who would have guessed that his dazzling, swirling skies and cheerful sunflowers were born of the dreary trudge of his own repeated failure and overwhelming empathy for one of the world’s hardest professions?

One does not linger in an art museum with an unrestrained two-year-old boy, but in an hour we were able to see all 70 works—most but not all van Gogh’s—and some original letters between Vincent and his brother Theo. My daughter got an idea of the amount of practice that good art requires. At the end the kids got to add a sticker (or five) to van Gogh’s bedroom, recreated in 3D.

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The Maison Vincent van Gogh, less than a 10 minute drive away from BAM, is worth a very quick stop if you enjoy walking in the footsteps of a giant. The house is modernized and set up like a museum exhibit inside; there are informative signs and a video about his life, examples of books he was reading during his four months in the house, a few reproductions and one painting, and a very small section of the house set up in period pieces. Most excitingly for us, near the ticket counter there were quill-style pens and inkwells for the kids to write Theo-to-Vincent style letters.

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The coal mines are shut now, and the beautiful Borinage is largely deindustrialized. Driving home through misty rain on the outskirts of Mons, we were able to reflect on how much we learned today about art, history, and the sturdiness and sensitivity of the human soul.
Cost: The BAM exhibit is 15 euro per adult and 3 euro for kids up to age 12. We chose the Family Ticket, which at 5 euro per person was a great deal for two adults and two kids. The Maison Vincent van Gogh is 2 euro per person for family tickets, 2,50 euro for adults, and free for children under 12. Both sites are free every first Sunday.
Locations & parking: BAM is located near the Grand Place of Mons at Rue Nueve 8, 7000 Mons. Various parking areas and street parking are in reach of it. Maison van Gogh is at Rue du Pavillon 3, 7033 Cuesmes (Mons) with parking on site.
Hours: Van Gogh au Borinage at BAM is open until May 17, 2015, 10 AM – 6 PM TuesdaySunday. The Maison van Gogh is open Noon – 6 PM TuesdaySunday


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