In an attempt to stir up some buzz in the blogosphere about their January 4 issue, The New Yorker sent me a PDF of Adam Gopnik’s story, a retelling of the Van Gogh ear-removal myth. “I thought you would be interested in Adam Gopnik’s piece from the Jan. 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, in which he explores the newly postulated idea that it was Paul Gauguin, and not Vincent Van Gogh himself, who cut off Van Gogh’s ear the night before Christmas Eve,” PR flack Cappi Williamson writes. “The two artists—out of shame on Van Gogh’s part, guilt on Gauguin’s—decided to keep the truth to themselves.” Although a subscription is necessary to read the entire article online, I love this Cliff Notes version at the New Yorker website:
“On Christmas Eve, 1888, in the small Provençal town of Arles, the police found Vincent Van Gogh in his bed, bleeding from the head, self-bandaged and semi-conscious. Hours earlier, the Dutchman had given his severed ear to a whore. The painter was known throughout the town as a crazy drunk who shared a squalid house with Paul Gauguin. After the incident, Gauguin wound up in the South Seas, where he became the first modern ‘primitive;’ Van Gogh was hospitalized, then brought to an insane asylum, where he painted ‘The Starry Night’ and ‘Cypresses.’ After Van Gogh’s suicide in 1890, the story of the severed ear became a talisman of modern painting. Modernism became an inspiring story of sacrifices made and sainthood attained by artists willing to lose their sanity on its behalf. Discusses Van Gogh’s upbringing in a Dutch village; his breakdowns and literary influences. Tells of his move from Holland to Paris, then to Arles, and his desire for a collaborative community. Tells of his relationship with Gauguin, who had made his name as an original, an adventurer. There was something erotic, ardent, if unrealized, about Van Gogh’s excitement in Gauguin’s presence. Gauguin’s paintings have more of an “abstract” quality; Van Gogh had embarked on ‘sacred realism.’ When you see a Gauguin, you think, This man is living in a dream world. When you see a Van Gogh, you think, This dream world is living in a man. Discusses the exasperating character of Van Gogh, and the character of Gauguin. Gauguin is a prime real-life case where doing the wrong thing appears to be morally justifiable, since the art made was great. Discusses Gauguin as an early example of moral luck, and as a model modern artist (of whom Picasso is the most famous realization). Discusses the revisionist version of the story put forward by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, in which Gauguin, a skilled fencer, slices off Van Gogh’s ear. Tells of Van Gogh being thrown out of Arles and sent to the asylum. Quotes from Van Gogh’s last letters to his brother, in which he appeared to accept his isolation and understand that, one day, there would be a community of readers and viewers who would appreciate him. The only authentic community he found was among the insane. Talks about the decisive break marked by the Christmas crisis. Van Gogh’s ear makes its claim on our attention because it reminds us that on the outer edge there is madness to pity, meanness to deplore, and courage to admire, and we can’t ever quite keep them from each other. We gawk as painters slice off their ears, but we rely on them to make up for our own timidity. We all make our wagers, but the artist does more. He bets his life.”
Of course this alternative ear theory was dismissed by the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and by van Gogh scholar Martin Bailey who will present proof that the artist injured himself after learning of his brother Theo’s engagement in the January edition of The Art Newspaper.
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