Monday, May 4, 2009


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Art historians claim Van Gogh's ear 'cut off by Gauguin'
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Monday 4 May 2009 21.55 BST
Article history

Vincent van Gogh's fame may owe as much to a legendary act of self-harm, as it does to his self-portraits. But, 119 years after his death, the tortured post-Impressionist's bloody ear is at the centre of a new controversy, after two historians suggested that the painter did not hack off his own lobe but was attacked by his friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin.

According to official versions, the disturbed Dutch painter cut off his ear with a razor after a row with Gauguin in 1888. Bleeding heavily, Van Gogh then walked to a brothel and presented the severed ear to an astonished prostitute called Rachel before going home to sleep in a blood-drenched bed.

But two German art historians, who have spent 10 years reviewing the police investigations, witness accounts and the artists' letters, argue that Gauguin, a fencing ace, most likely sliced off the ear with his sword during a fight, and the two artists agreed to hush up the truth.

In Van Gogh's Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence, published in Germany, Hamburg-based academics Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans argue that the official version of events, based largely on Gauguin's accounts, contain inconsistencies and that both artists hinted that the truth was more complex.

Van Gogh and Gauguin's troubled friendship was legendary. In 1888, Van Gogh persuaded him to come to Arles in the south of France to live with him in the Yellow House he had set up as a "studio of the south". They spent the autumn painting together before things soured. Just before Christmas, they fell out. Van Gogh, seized by an attack of a metabolic disease became aggressive and was apparently crushed when Gauguin said he was leaving for good.

Kaufmann told the Guardian: "Near the brothel, about 300 metres from the Yellow House, there was a final encounter between them: Vincent might have attacked him, Gauguin wanted to defend himself and to get rid of this 'madman'. He drew his weapon, made some movement in the direction of Vincent and by that cut off his left ear." Kaufmann said it was not clear if it was an accident or an aimed hit.

While curators at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam stand by the theory of self-mutilation, Kaufmann argues that Van Gogh dropped hints in letters to his brother, Theo, once commenting : "Luckily Gauguin ... is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous war weapons."


Abby Levine said...

I love this story! I've always thought the Van Gogh myth harmful to artists and a corruption of art historical truth. Hats (or ears) off to the careful research and courage of these two historians.

holly said...

I think that it would be very hard to cut off the ear with a sword. To slice off an ear so completely Gauguin would have had to hold Vincent down to cut off the ear and would have had to use a knife. Even with a knife the ear would have been hard to cut off so completely---just feel your own ear! If it was a finger that would be more believable. As Van Gogh suffered from a mental disease where he was not in control it would have been very easy for him to cut off his own ear. Perhaps he was hearing voices---People who are in the flux of psychosis often do not feel pain as people who are fully aware. It would take time to cut off an ear! And precision. Yet does it really matter? The fact that Van Gogh suffered from a mental disorder is enough. People have suggested he was manic depressive and that his work was done when he was manic. This would account for the sheer amount of work he did---sometimes two full paintings a day. A wonderful book I have read "The Yellow House" I believe it is called gives a wonderful portrayal of the time the two artists lived together. More importantly it shows ( in my opinion ) that Van Gogh was the superior painter. It has reproductions of subjects that both Van Gogh and Gaugin painted---you be the judge. In my opinion Gaugin was the Andy Warhol of his time wanting fame and fortune and was much more the savvy business man. Van Gogh was the real thing---what kept him going was the love of his brother Theo who supported him and his PASSION. Long live Van Gogh and his marvelous work!! Long live his life story of pure passion for his art in the face of poverty and mental anguish to ignite other artists!! In the end it doesn't really matter who cut the ear off. That is not what makes Van Gogh a legend. I doubt Gaugin could have painted given the same circumstances.

Art said...

I agree with Holly that either way, it's a good story about a great artist

Unknown said...

This reaffirms two things that Vincent suffered mental disorder and his relationship with Gauguin was strained. The question on who cut the ear is important as it must have had a great impact on the subject. If Gauguin did cut his ear off and the two great artists did keep the secret, they were great friends despite their differences.
I love Van Gogh's work and to me his art has no reflection of any mental disorder.