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(Credit: Wikimedia)

Art

Tracing the legacy of Vincent van Gogh’s ear

@TomTaylorFO

Dumbo, Noddy, the FA Cup, Evander Holyfield all have famous ears (or lack thereof) in their own right, but none come close to the severed aural appendage of the late great Vincent van Gogh. However, the notoriety of his ear is a curious one—even as infants, we know of the strange mono-lugged man whose glasses were doomed to be lopsided, but the whys and wherefores are always somewhat out of reach.

Despite this air of mystery, the fabled ear has endured. In fact, in some senses, it has oddly endured beyond the art. If you were to ask the average person to tell you one thing about Van Gogh – one of the greatest artists of all time no less – most people would sooner answer that he lobbed off his own lug before naming a masterpiece or rattling off a ream of what he stood for.

Below, we are exploring the definitive tale of the ear and where it now stands in culture.

Why did Vincent van Gogh cut his ear off?

A very good question. Well, the definitive answer is still largely disputed. However, before we delve into the specific details of the severing itself and the immediate prelude and aftermath, it is important to say that Van Gogh had significant mental health issues. What’s more, he suffered from epilepsy, and the medication used to treat the condition in 1888 had significant side effects. Thus, as you might have expected, he was not likely to have been sound of mind at the time.

Now onto the evening itself: according to the Van Gogh Museum, the latest research suggests that late in the evening of Sunday, December 23rd, Van Gogh had a blazing row with his housemate and fellow artist Paul Gaugin.

Initially, the pair had painted together, and a friendship blossomed. This fulfilled a vision that Van Gogh had of artists living and working together harmoniously, a world away from the competitive art scene of Paris that had spurned him. However, in time the pair began to bicker, and when Gaugin grew frustrated with Van Gogh’s condition, he stormed out one evening.

Van Gogh was heavily distressed by the incident and the idea that he had ruined his utopian vision of a friendly artistic household. Suffering from hallucinatory symptoms, Van Gogh picked up a knife and completely severed his entire ear.

He wrapped the ear in newspaper and headed to the Maison de Tolerance, a brothel not far from the home he shared with Gaugin in Arles. Therein he asked for a woman named Rachel (or Gaby). With his hat pulled over his wound, he handed her the very surprising package and remarked: “Guard this object carefully.” She opened it and quite naturally fainted. Presumably, Van Gogh blushed.

What happened in the immediate aftermath?

Van Gogh recovered in hospital over the course of the next week. With his brother Theo (an eminent Parisian art dealer) at his bedside, Vincent put the incident down to “a simple artists bout of craziness”. The ‘Starry Night’ visionary wanted to forget the incident and get back to his art and life.

However, when he was released after a week of treatment, he suffered subsequent episodes, which he called “mental or nervous fever”. Albeit this mental condition has never formally been diagnosed, it is clear that his heavy drinking, the stress of working with a more experienced artist in Gaugin, his own floundering career and the aforementioned medical factors all played a part.

What happened to Vincent van Gogh’s ear?

After the severance, all goes quiet on the actual ear front, no pun intended. This isn’t as mysterious as it might seem. Far from the Holy Grail of art, Van Gogh was not a revered painter at the time; thus, the appendage represented little more than a drunken eccentric who had hurt himself in an accident. There was little cause for the French authorities to do anything other than dispose of the ear.

(Credit: Google Cultural Institute)

Why is Vincent van Gogh’s ear so significant?

The year after Van Gogh severed his ear, he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he produced the bulk of his major works. ‘Starry Night’ depicts the view from an Asylum window, where he would sit by his easel.

He absorbed the beauty of a balmy day like a sponge and rung it out in a kaleidoscopic splurge on canvas, illuminating the stars in the swirl of spiderwebs as though distant setting suns had abseiled the heavens on silk and lowered themselves for a closer look at the beauty below them in the cover of gathering dusk. Now, sadly, that painting and its night brighter than day brilliance, the effervescence of the firmament and its butter-brushed tones, are coloured like the beautiful yet fevered thoughts of an asylum patient as opposed to the art of man relishing in the magic of the night.

The notion of a troubled genius tragically unrecognised in his time won out over the notion of a genius with troubles whose circumstances precluded recognition. This notable difference embalms the rest of his narrative and has been propagated in the broader story of culture forevermore, crystallising the angle of the woe begotten artist and his dejected final fate.

Although his works began to be recognised within his lifetime, the fact he died only a year after his great artistic spree at the age of 37 in 1890 meant his fame was largely posthumous. With this, his ‘madness’ was sensationalised.

Various biographies created a crackpot celebrity out of him. The public then developed a morbid fascination with the one-eared madman who painted a bit as opposed to a genius who suffered a sorry bout of mental illness. They even saw his manic works as an extension of his mental illness, but the truth is, he only painted while suffering one of his attacks on one single occasion.

However, this was widely understandable. Given the economic problems and First World War that followed his death, the public knew far more about the artist through hand-to-mouth tales than they did of his works. He was, after all, an interesting character, and very few people had the means or economic potential to actually visit his works. In an era where the colour printing press was basically non-existent, this meant the man was far more interesting than the idea of his unseen art.

The perfect paradigm for this came to the fore when his paintings were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1935. This was the chance of a lifetime for the art elite to witness their hero’s creations. However, the public’s morbid fascination with the ear remained. Thus, the show attracted monster crowds numbering more than 123,000 visitors.

With vast crowds gasping at the chance to witness the art of a mad man who heard the world in mono, it was difficult for true art fiends to fully analyse his works. Thus, an annoyed art hipster named Hugh Troy set about moulding a piece of dried beef into an ear-like shape. He then placed it in a velveteen box, snuck into MoMA one evening, and hung the fake ear in the gallery above a plaque proclaiming that it belonged to the late artist. The next day the masses swarmed around the hoax artefact, and the true fans were able to analyse his brushstrokes in peace.

Conclusion

The fact that the ear has been such a big deal over the years is not surprising in itself. There is no doubting that it is inherently interesting. However, its enduring legacy and the extent to which it has coloured the narrative still says a lot about how we view mental health and art as a means to generate commercial success as opposed to the creative process.

I’m sure if we discovered in a few decades that the ear had actually been preserved and it was handed to some modern Dr Frankenstein, perhaps Elon Musk and Grimes’ son, and he reanimated the ear and extracted its consciousness, we might finally ‘ear the full story.

“For me, as his former ear, the modern world gets it wrong,” it might say. “They look at him through the gaze of retrospect. There is nothing despairing about the fact he never lived to see the false light of fame.”

“After all, does a man with foresight cut and subsequently mail his ear to a prostitute? Nah, old Vinny burned like the swirling stars on his canvas, a hysteria of his own creation only a short perspective trip away from reality. I’ve got to admire my old head buddy for the fact that he adoringly absorbed the world and wrung it out on canvas on the other side. Even a blind ear who doesn’t appreciate art can appreciate that. Despite the fact that most of New York preferred a piece of dried beef.”