Image © Van Gogh
“Neither the sun nor the death can be looked at with a steady eye”
Sunflowers are fascinating. They look like a child’s drawing of the sun and have another particularity that links them directly to the sun. The origin of their name, from the Latin and the Greek, Helianthus annuus tells us two things. Sunflowers face the sun (helios from Greek), moving and following it all the day long, and grow throughout the year, whatever the season (annuus); are they offering an idea of eternity? In the language of flowers, Sunflower means “I admire you. You are the sun to me, you are the only one I look at; to you I turn”. Does admiration for the sun make this flower eternal?
I had no idea why I fell in love with these flowers until I remembered the embroidered copy of the Van Gogh painting that met my eyes so many times at my Grandma’s house. It was one of the series of “Sunflower” paintings he made to impress Gauguin, to show him the admiration he had for his work. Van Gogh wanted to prove to him his agreement with the idea that it is only the painting that counts and the act of passionately grasping dying beauty. His choice of the sunflower was part of something simple, but worth painting. And Van Gogh knew it was Gauguin’s favourite flower.
Simplicity was my Grandma’s way of life. She always acted with kindness, driven by her own inner light. Some are cut from a different cloth. She was a real phenomenon. A character and a pure presence. Until her last day she remained alert, her steady eyes taking in the sunlight every new day, enjoying it, sharing her joy of being alive, at first with the little blackbird that waited for her at the window in the morning, expecting a hand to feed him.
Marie Barthe Langlais was born in 1922 and experienced death at a very early age. Her mother passed away, giving birth to her eighth child. Marie was alone with her father when he died. She was nine and stayed with him until he went, saying a prayer she remembered until the end of life. Poverty gave her wooden clogs and blisters. It also gave her dreams about puppies and soft leather shoes. Wildlife in the fields gave her the instinct of freedom, the power to embrace every single gift of life like an orange for Christmas, the time to let the sun touch her childish body, the chance to whistle with the nightingales, to learn harmony from Nature, to develop empathy with human beings and animals. She grew up with little schooling (she stopped at nine to look after the cows and horses), in a family of two brothers and five sisters. Angèle was 21 years old when she died of a heart problem but she had had the time to call Marie her “little sun” because she was always happy. She laughed a lot, made jokes and was as cheeky as they come. An open and communicative smile under a tousle of wild blond hair. Marie followed her own sun, her belief in life. She never complained nor behaved sentimentally. She faced the Second World War at the age of sixteen, crossed the country from Paris to Brittany, spent seven nights and days riding a bike, ate sometimes, slept with rats to escape the Nazis and hid in a convent where she had a pillow fight with her sisters. Laughing was as natural as necessary. Laughter was her lucky charm.
Sunflowers do not show off. As Van Gogh knew, they remain humble and they give what they can, even in a vase where they are cut and slowly dying. They do not give up even un-rooted and away from Mother Nature. They are called “big sun”, “garden’s sun”, “sun we share”, “helianthus”; the mirror image of their gaze. With their long stems, they can reach four metres in height. It seems that sunflowers are born to grow as much as possible. Their large disk blooms have no pistil, are usually brown and surrounded by yellow rays. Shiny faces, which admire another one, their pattern and model, a remarkable unforgettable Epiphany.
Marie Barthe went slowly and gently like a candle burning her flame until the end, enlightening and warming others. She communicated her sense of human dignity. Photographs have captured her sunny and cheeky fairy smile.
“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo. Arles, Tuesday, 18 September 1888.
English translation made in collaboration with a professional translator
Mr Michael Swithun Wells