Ear, Ear

Oddly, two contrary theories about the cause of Impressionist (performance) artist Vincent van Gogh’s legendary ear-ectomy are in the news this week.

Let’s start with Adam Gopnik’s piece in this week’s New Yorker.  The lede:

It is, in its strange way, at once the Nativity fable and the Passion story of modern art. On Christmas Eve, 1888, in the small Provençal town of Arles, the police found  a young Dutch émigré painter in his bed, bleeding from the head, self-bandaged and semi-conscious, in a run-down residence called, for its peeling exterior, the Yellow House. A few hours before, the Dutchman had given his severed ear – or just its lower lobe; stories differed – to a whore named Rachel in a maison de tolérance, a semi-legal bordello, as a kind of early Christmas gift. (She had passed out upon unwrapping it.) The painter, Vincent Van Gogh, was known throughout the town as a crazy drunk who hung around the whorehouse too much for his own good, and who shared the squalid Yellow House with another so-called artist, even scarier than he was, though not usually as drunk and not so obviously crazy. That other artist, Paul Gauguin – after being interviewed by the police, and insisting that his friend must have sliced off his own ear in a fit – then sent a telegram to the Dutchman’s brother, urging him to come at once. Then Gauguin left for Paris, as fast as trains could carry him, never to return.

But, Gopnik notes, that traditional version has been challenged by “two reputable German academics, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans . . . [who ] argue that it was Gauguin who sliced off van Gogh’s ear, with a sword that he carried with him for self-defense, and that the two artists – out of shame on van Gogh’s part, guilt on Gauguin’s – decided to keep the truth to themselves.”

Interesting . . . but then there’s Martin Bailey’s piece in The Art Newspaper. The lede:

An envelope depicted in a Van Gogh painting provides a clue that could help to explain why the artist slashed his ear. The envelope, in Still Life: Drawing Board with Onions, 1889, is addressed to Vincent from his brother Theo. Until now, no one has considered whether the artist was illustrating a specific letter.

The letter in the painting probably arrived in Arles on 23 December 1888, the fateful day when Vincent mutilated his ear in the late evening. It almost certainly contained news that Theo had fallen in love with Johanna (Jo) Bonger, and Vincent was fearful that he might lose his brother’s emotional and financial support.

Back to the traditional version of van Gogh’s ear-splitting statement, as rendered by Bailey:

The established view is that Vincent did not learn of Theo’s engagement until after he mutilated his ear, but our research suggests that news of the love affair reached him on 23 December.

So, to recap:

Paul Gauguin cut off van Gogh’s ear, presumably in defense of his life.

Or . . .

Van Gogh cut off van Gogh’s ear, presumably in defense of his lifestyle.

Discuss among yourselves.

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