Fans of the work of Vincent Van Gogh, of industrial heritage and of vintage Hollywood have a treat waiting in the European Capital of Culture programme of Mons in Belgium this spring: all three subjects in one intriguing package of exhibitions, screenings and darkly atmospheric topography.
The atmospheric destination is the Borinage, the impoverished region around Mons, where long rows of grimy workers' terraces and the remains of railways and canals stretch around a landscape of low hills. This was one of the most important industrialised zones of Europe in 1878, when the 25-year-old Van Gogh arrived, an amateur painter. However, he was primarily devoted to the aim of becoming a Protestant pastor, with poor mining communities ideal candidates for spiritual aid.
One of the Mons exhibitions, Van Gogh in the Borinage, explores for the first time the work of the young man during the two years he spent there, in this, the 125th anniversary year of the great painter's death. Another, Hollywood au Pied du Terril (Hollywood at the Foot of the Slag Heap) at the Anciens Abattoirs, tackles the 1956 MGM Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas, which was a rare early example of an American film shot on location, and probably the only example of one shot in a Belgian coalfield.
The Borinage in Van Gogh's day was a booming area of dozens of private mineshafts, tall chimneys and mountains of coal, which immediately struck the young Vincent as "full of character… reminiscent of the medieval paintings of Bruegel", as he wrote in one of his many letters home, adding: "The people are completely black, just like chimney sweeps. Their houses could better be called huts, scattered along the sunken roads and against the slope of the hills."
The Côte d'Azur it still isn't. Old postcards show Pâturages station, where Vincent disembarked, a low brick building with a stepped façade, surrounded by coal-heaps, railway lines and cobbles. It's still there, 15 minutes' drive from the centre of Mons, but the railway lines are overgrown and used as cycle tracks, like much of the former coalfield returning to its pre-mining state. The word "borinage" comes from the Flemish boeren, farmers, who were the first miners. Today, cattle and sheep, and rather a lot of horses, have reclaimed the fields, and the slag heaps are thick with foliage, including exotic plants thriving on the lingering underground heat.
An agreeably under-commercialised Van Gogh tourism trail exists, meandering through the Mons banlieue. It includes fascinating, if somewhat unspectacular, locations such as the Salon du Bébé in Wasmes, a pair of unremarkable roadside houses, but ones with a story. The Salon du Bébé was one of many cabaret/dance halls, used for a pagan spring feast which involved a hunt for a doll hidden in the woods. The Salon du Bébé was also borrowed for evangelical services before the rather stern Wasmes Church was built, and hosted Van Gogh's first, clumsy attempts at sermons, prior to his dismissal for unseemly Christ-like behaviour and career change towards posthumous art superstardom.
Apart from the Salon du Bébé, the Van Gogh trail is short on entertainment venues, as Vincent had taken to wearing rags and sleeping on straw out of solidarity with his flock and had yet to discover absinthe and women. The Borinage does contain faded tobacco-stained working-men's clubs and estaminets, and the historic influence of the big Italian influx in some decent pizzerias – I also found a Sicilian miners' bar lurking behind an old marketplace – as well as more recent layers of kebab shops.
As for accommodation, two simple houses lodged in by Van Gogh are in theory visitable, one a rudimentary museum, the second currently gutted during refurbishment as a guest house. Sadly for movie buffs, the lodgings of the cast and crew of Lust for Life are no longer accessible: the smart country hotel called the Relais, situated among the mine-owners' mansions to the west, has since become a psychiatric hospital.
The most spectacular item of Borinage industrial heritage, and by far the most lavishly upgraded, is the Grand-Hornu development. It was extremely opulent when built, by an industrialist named Henri De Gorge, who specified terraces of comfortable miners' houses with their own toilets, spacious lawns, tree-filled courtyards and huge airy brick halls. These include the salle des pendus, the chamber of the hanged, which was used to suspend the miners' drying work clothes – rather than the miners themselves – and is now one of several smart cafés. Art galleries, bookshops and conference spaces occupy other parts of the great complex, while the terraces around show signs of architects and other gentrifiers having moved in.
Nearby Marcasse is a total contrast. This was the pit Van Gogh experienced, though Kirk Douglas sampled the grim reality of mining in a film set constructed above ground. You enter the premises past a wall of marble plaques and plastic flowers commemorating the fatalities of one of the many mine disasters, to be greeted by Apollo, the owners' handsome young Dobermann, who shares the premises with an assortment of goats, horses and abandoned motor vehicles. There isn't much to do yet – the owners, a miner's son and his wife, are working to create a café and museum – but strolling the rambling grounds or climbing Marcasse's particularly attractive and leafy slag heap is perfectly adequate.
As the Mons exhibition demonstrates, the region and its inhabitants, which Van Gogh began to portray in sombre black and white, were critical influences on his transition from trainee evangelist to visionary painter. The Borinage period is a key episode in the career of one of the most celebrated artists in history – ample reason to visit this curious region during its spell in the cultural spotlight.
Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist is at the Musée des Beaux-Arts Mons, Belgium, until 17 May
The writer travelled to Mons with Voyages SNCF (0844 848 5848; voyages-sncf.com) on a Eurostar "Any Belgian Station" ticket, available from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet or Ashford via Brussels or Lille from £80.
Beaux-Arts Mons (00 32 65 40 53 12; bam.mons.be).
Anciens Abattoirs (00 32 65 405312; abattoirs.mons.be).
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