An inspired piece of recycling, turning a nineteenth century railway terminus into an art gallery. On reflection quite appropriate for its massive porticos make it look more like a museum than a train station. Easy to confuse the two were it not for the names of the cities served by the line; Tours, Rennes, Poitiers, Agen, Bordeaux. Names that run along the length of the building’s exterior, testament to a solid, confident century that could carve its timetables in granite.
Visiting a new city ought to be a good experience. I’ve never been here before so Frances shepherds me around. Off the Eurostar, into the Metro and out into the wide space of the Tuilleries. Paris has celebrated the millenium with an extravagance of gold. Statues and domes glisten in the bright Spring sunshine. But it is hard for me to see it in any way that connects. All that has happened in this last year has left my perceptions grey. All experience undermined, leaving an emptiness beneath. I had hoped that Paris would make a change but, so far, there is no sign of it.
The postimpressionist exhibition is on the top floor. That is what we have come to see. We take the lift and are soon high up amongst the glass panels and iron girders of the station roof. Through the door of a café I can see the reverse face of one of the two massive clocks that dominate each end of the long building; still keeping exact nineteenth century time as they clank into the twenty-first.
We enter an airy and colourful room. Unobtrusive lighting which displays to perfection the paintings mounted on light grey walls. An elderly man with a video-camera apparently welded to his right shoulder is walking through the room at a brisk pace; filming every picture, looking at none; as if he were on a mission to incorporate everything, to miss nothing. Understandable, I suppose, at least he knows what he is after. What am I trying to do, making this pilgrimage? No answer comes and for a moment the void of senselessness widens. I turn to Frances. “It’s a bit crowded here, shall we go through to the Van Goghs?”
The exhibition is augmented by loans from all over the world. Never have there been so many of Van Gogh’s important works together in one place at one time. Together we walk through to the salon.
The effect is overpowering But it is not the images,it is the flood of colour. It is as if the painter is trying to speak through the vibrancy of the pigment, desperate to communicate his message but my mind is dulled to colour. I can see it but it does not connect.
“Beautiful”, murmurs Frances, I am more disturbed than entranced. It feels as if the floor is moving beneath my feet. Deep down a low chord resonates through me. A formless fear, indescribable but unquestionably real.
I nearly turn and run but the advance of another cohort of camera-toting visitors prevents my escape. Turning back I squeeze Frances’s hand hardShe puts her arm around my waist, a gesture that helps to defuse the fear.
We move into the next room. By now I do not know what to do. My eyes flick from image to image like the video-camera, but I cannot rest, cannot settle on one picture. I walk on into a smaller anteroom. Across the room, facing me directly, is a blue picture. A thin, tired man; head on one side. In front of him, lying on the red desk surface, is a small sprig of foxgloves. I peer at the caption. This is a portrait of Dr Gachet; Paul Gachet, doctor to Van Gogh in the last weeks of the painter’s life.
This is a doctor. I look at the eyes. They have a rheumy look. Tired, no doubt of that, but also despairing in a resigned way. Head resting on the tightly clenched fist of his right hand, the other hand resting on the edge of the desk, looking as if it might slip off at any moment. The joints of his fingers suggest arthritis. The skin of his face is mobile, wrinkled. Almost in a manner that is inappropriate he wears a crumpled white cap which has a thin yellow strap across its brow. I stare at his demeanour, his posture. The identification is total and complete.
In this moment I, Richard Avery, recognise a man who knows exactly what it is like to be me. For the first time since this illness began, for the first time in my whole adult life, I find myself crying.