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Lend Me Your Ear, Vincent
May 4, 2009 11:46 PM   Subscribe

Did Gauguin Cut Off van Gogh's Ear? According to a new book by two German art historians, van Gogh did not slice off his left ear in a fit of madness and drunkenness in Arles in December 1888. His ear was severed by a sword wielded by his friend, the painter, Paul Gauguin, in a drunken row over a woman called Rachel and the true nature of art.
posted by ornate insect (38 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I didn't think there was anything that might make Vincent cooler than he already was--but, there it is. Sword wielding art giants slicing and dicing for a woman and "what is art"...that I can get behind.

van Gogh has immeasurably enriched my life. To think that largely within a single decade he gave us what he did still boggles my mind, and that his art still mesmerizes despite the vast exposure that could easily have worn it out...it still boggles my mind. Thank you, sir.
posted by maxwelton at 12:00 AM on May 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


How earresponsible!
posted by ageispolis at 12:02 AM on May 5, 2009 [13 favorites]


He did it for lobe.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:09 AM on May 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


Oh, snap! This turns him into much more of a badass.
posted by redsparkler at 12:11 AM on May 5, 2009


If this is true, it ruins one of my favorite lines from Play it Again Sam:

Linda: I feel some sort of a mystical attraction for Van Gogh. Why is that?
Allan: I don't know. I just know he was a great painter and he cut off an ear for a girl that he loved.
Linda: That's the kind of thing you would do for a girl.
Allan: I'd really have to like her a lot.
posted by allen.spaulding at 12:19 AM on May 5, 2009


This is actually quite old news; the romantic self-harm story was never much more than an iffy hypothesis, and it's usually followed by something along the lines of, "however, others speculate that Gauguin may have done it because he was a drunk and van Gogh was annoying as fuck." If you're writing a clear narrative, though, like, say, for a movie, you have to go with one or the other.

Also: If you catch syphilis in Tahiti, you can probably blame Gauguin for that too.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:23 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Trust Gauguin to stirrup trouble.
posted by No-sword at 12:24 AM on May 5, 2009


the romantic self-harm story was never much more than an iffy hypothesis

But it sounds like we're still safe with the romantic story about how Gauguin was a total psychotic bastard.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:36 AM on May 5, 2009


Actually, maxwelton, it's even crazier than that. Most of Van Gogh's mature work - the stuff we recognize immediately as being his - was produced in a little over three years. He started painting/drawing in 1882, but his years in Netherlands (to 1885) and in Paris (1185-1888) were more exploratory and formative. It was only when he got to Arles in 1888 that he truly exploded, and, excluding bouts of unidentified mental illness, worked manically until he killed himself in 1891.

Alas, I find the biographical oddities/mythologies around his life tend to overshadow, rather than enrich, Van Gogh's work. The most common refrain, of course, is that his madness is what made him so brilliant - when, in fact, a close look at his correspondences shows that his attacks (thought by some to be a form of epilepsy) were completely debilitating: far more of an interference than an inspiration. One wonders, instead, what he would have produced had he been able to work past those few short years.

Of course, whenever his work is mentioned, I can't help myself from pointing to the incomparable Van Gogh Gallery - as complete a collection of his work on the web as anyone could ask. As an artist who works primarily in drawing, I find his work by turns enchanting, bewildering, and humbling. I could live in this drawing alone for weeks.
posted by TheRoach at 12:38 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Were they listening to Stuck In the Middle With You when it happened?
posted by Xoebe at 12:39 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Interesting theory, and I'd imagine it's a very plausible one. One thing though, why would they agree to hush it up? I suppose, if they were still tight friends, van Gogh wouldn't want to see Gauguin go to jail. Or maybe Gauguin offered to pay van Gogh some hush money. At any rate, this is not going to make me rewrite a line from one of my songs:

if I had a million dollars,
I'd give it to her straightaway
I'd cut my ear off like van Gogh
if that'd make her stay...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:49 AM on May 5, 2009


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."

I think I just figured out my writing project for the summer ... two legendary painters, presumed dead and in hiding, emerge as old men to have their final showdown in the abattoir of World War I ... will Gaugin's skill with a mounted machine gun be enough to fend off the bold colors and deadly toxins of Van Gogh's post-impressionistic gas attacks? FIND OUT THIS CHRISTMAS AT A THEATER NEAR YOU!
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:50 AM on May 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Were they listening to Stuck In the Middle With You when it happened?

Mega-groan.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 1:45 AM on May 5, 2009


it ruins one of my favorite lines from Play it Again Sam

Not at all. He still did it for a woman.

If I ever allude to a VG/ear situation in writing, I must remember to keep it ambiguous.

"All because of that woman." or something.
posted by rokusan at 2:06 AM on May 5, 2009


My favorite take on the Van Gogh ear story is the moral of the story. Basically, the ear did not impress the lady he was romancing. She left him for a handsome Jewish fellow. Because, after all, to ear is human, but to foreskin is divine.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:44 AM on May 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


Le's ear it for the boy!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:46 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Course, you know what Rachel said when van Gogh brought her that left ear, don't you?

"Right ear! Right now!"
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:48 AM on May 5, 2009


Gauguin would do just that kind of thing wouldn't he. Typical drunken stockbroker turned painter.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:50 AM on May 5, 2009


I like go say "Gauguin". It's so glottal. gau....guin.
posted by DU at 4:14 AM on May 5, 2009


I didn't think there was anything that might make Vincent cooler than he already was--

Not sure that's the adjective I would have chosen, but whatever.

Are there any pictures of Rachel?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:26 AM on May 5, 2009


He was The baddest painter since Jon Vermeer.
He loved he loved he loved life so bad,
His paintings had twice the color other paintings had.
So bad so bad that the world had to know,
The man loved color and he let it show.

Thanks for this post. My daughters middle name is van Gogh. Now when her friends ask her if he was the guy who cut off his ear she can answer no, it was that bastard Gauguin.
posted by Sailormom at 5:44 AM on May 5, 2009


> This is actually quite old news

Cite please? I've never heard it. If it is "old news," fine; if not, I think it's a priori unlikely that if it were true no hint of it would have come out in all this time.
posted by languagehat at 6:17 AM on May 5, 2009


And now I think I know what you tried to say to me
how you suffered for your sanity
how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
they're not
list'ning still
perhaps they never will.
posted by notashroom at 7:01 AM on May 5, 2009


Actually, although I've never heard this story before, it does kind of make sense. I've always thought it would be damn hard to cut off your own ear with a razor - not just the pain, but getting the angle on the blade right would be difficult. A friend waving a sword around, well, yes, you can see it. He's lucky nobody lost an eye.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:15 AM on May 5, 2009


So, essentially, a philosopical nerd fight fueled by alcohol and a mutual crush on a woman that neither man probably stood a chance with still impacts the world of art and history some 120 years later.

Yet the best we can do in 2009 is a 300+ comment flamewar that will be all but forgotten three days later when it's bumped off the front page of MetaTalk by another "What does '.' stand for?" post?

And we call this progress?
posted by Ufez Jones at 7:20 AM on May 5, 2009


Yet the best we can do in 2009 is a 300+ comment flamewar that will be all but forgotten three days later when it's bumped off the front page of MetaTalk by another "What does '.' stand for?" post?

I WILL CUT OFF MY RIGHT HAND ON YOUR LIES!
posted by Krrrlson at 8:56 AM on May 5, 2009


Martin Gayford is skeptical:
A local newspaper reported that at 11:30 on Dec. 23, 1888, Van Gogh handed in his severed ear at a local brothel; the recipient of the grisly parcel, a certain Rachel, was understandably upset. This story was substantiated by the policeman who investigated the incident...
Presenting a severed ear to a local prostitute then scampering off into the night is erratic behavior, to say the least; it fits convincingly into a pattern of behavior that could encompass bizarre self-mutilation.
There don't seem to be very many hard facts about the incident. But it seems a bit uneconomical to assume Gauguin was responsible. We know from the policeman and the prostitute that Van Gogh was acting strangely: why add another entity when one suffices?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:57 AM on May 5, 2009


TheophileEscargot - acting "stangely" in the late 19th century is a lot different than acting strangely today. Presenting the ear is strange in and of itself, but I refuse to believe that Van Gogh "scampered" off into the night. I demand witnesses!

I choose to believe that, after their duel, Van Gogh stormed over to the brothel, ear wrapped in canvas. As Van Gogh approaches the welcoming entrance, Gaugin lurks behind in the shadows. Van Gogh enters the building, demanding Rachel. He has trouble balancing, and stumbles forward - a mixed result of the loss of blood and loss of ear, nevermind the absinthe.

Van Gogh slams the canvas down onto the counter, and it opens, revealing the ear. The canvas is soaked in dark expressive blood.

Gaugin hears the screams of the women, but dares not look into the building. Then he hears Van Gogh approaching, scuffling forward, stumbling a bit, before reaching Gaugin. Van Gogh looks as if he is going to grab Gaugin for support, but instead he uses both hands to grab Gaugin's lapels. Van Gogh pulls Gaugin to his face. With heavy breath, he says: "This, my friend, this is the true nature of art."
posted by jabberjaw at 9:14 AM on May 5, 2009


Cite please?

*shrug* All's I know is that's how it went down in the course pack.

But I'm willing to bet this book has a list of notes. A long one.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:04 AM on May 5, 2009


Yet the best we can do in 2009 is a 300+ comment flamewar that will be all but forgotten three days later when it's bumped off the front page of MetaTalk by another "What does '.' stand for?" post?

You've never seen mefi's crossing swords at meet ups?
posted by inigo2 at 11:56 AM on May 5, 2009


Also: If you catch syphilis in Tahiti, you can probably blame Gauguin for that too.

Syphilis was already established in Tahiti by 1769, so no.

Unless you're suggesting that Gaugin cut off Van Gogh's ear, painted a bunch of cool paintings, AND invented a time machine. That would make him the awesomest person who ever lived.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:54 PM on May 5, 2009


Sidhedevil: ...or referring to Gaugin's rampant promiscuity that would have VERY effectively spread syphilis around the island, perhaps.

Joey Michaels: That is the single worst pun ever and had to be celebrated with favourites.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:43 PM on May 5, 2009


> This is actually quite old news

Cite please?


Interestingly, I had lunch today with a longtime NYC (original SoHo pioneer generation) painter friend...

I brought up the story .... seems that this rumor has existed for YEARS.
posted by R. Mutt at 7:49 PM on May 5, 2009


Yeah, I heard it some years ago too (and I'm damned if I can remember where!)
posted by Wolof at 9:13 PM on May 5, 2009


Sorry, I can't hear you. I have a rapier in my ear.
posted by Forrest Greene at 9:58 PM on May 5, 2009


flibertigibbet - I wish I could claim it as my own, but I know I read it somewhere, I just can't remember where. It was a series of very short stories that all began with a sentence like "Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute..."
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:10 PM on May 6, 2009


...or referring to Gaugin's rampant promiscuity that would have VERY effectively spread syphilis around the island, perhaps.

Yes, nobody had multiple sex partners on Tahiti between 1769 and 1891. What? One forty-something Frenchman's sex life was hardly going to make an epidemiological impact on the Tahitian population, especially considering the sexual mores of that culture at that time.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:16 PM on May 6, 2009


had a rapier in my ear....
posted by IndigoJones at 9:50 AM on May 12, 2009


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