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The outskirts of Paris, 1886
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Clark opens his article on Paris with Van Gogh’s “The Outskirts of Paris, 1886”. It is not one of his most recognizable paintings, and it is easy to understand why. There are no golden sunflowers or celestial wonders, no bucolic golden fields. Instead, the liminal space between the end of the city and the beginning of the countryside. An impassive white sky dominates the painting, the other half a muddy intersection framed with trodden grass. A single, damning streetlight pins the middle of the painting. The man at its foot seems similarly crucified by it and the cross on his chest, trapped in this no-man’s land. His features are indistinguishable, an everyman caught in the crossroads of modernity. But these cross-roads are not in the heart of Haussmanian Paris, broad boulevards, dazzling department stores or epic monuments. The modernity of the working class were these muddy peripheries, neither urban nor rural. Expelled from the insalubrious but known labyrinthine streets of the quartiers – the original “15 minute city” planners rave about now – a place where every neighborhood had a local tailor, shoemaker, baker, street musician, prostitute, shopkeeper, knife-grinder; where the overcrowded tenements shared buildings with workshops of artisans whose guilds created the economic netting that bound the city – expelled from this dark and dense heart, they are exposed and alone under the open, unforgiving sky. They are turned away from the city – many of them had to do the commute daily for hours on foot – because the city has expelled them in becoming its new kind of eden.

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