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05 May, 2009

Van Gogh gouged by Gauguin?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

This latest theory about Paul Gauguin slicing off Vincent van Gogh’s ear with a fencing foil is highly implausible

Poor Vincent; he gets no rest. If it isn’t a new film or TV drama about the tragic genius who ended his extraordinary life in 1890 by shooting himself, it’s a new theory about the “true” story of Van Gogh. According to two German art historians, the artist did not cut off his own ear. Instead they claim he menaced Paul Gauguin in a moment of madness and Gauguin, an accomplished fencer who happened to be carrying his sword, whipped off the ear in hasty self-defence.

Are these scholars by any chance graduates of Heidelberg University‘s renowned duelling tradition? I can’t imagine that Gauguin was a good enough fencer to deliver this surgical wound. He’d have been more likely to hack off Vincent’s head by mistake.

It is true that Van Gogh’s self-harm at Arles in 1889 is a more mysterious event than you might think. The only full account of what happened was written by Gauguin himself. There are more indirect allusions in Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. From all this evidence comes the conventional interpretation that, after he worked hard to persuade his hero Gauguin to come and live in the Yellow House, his would-be artist’s colony in the southern French town, Van Gogh couldn’t face it when Gauguin decided to leave. He confronted the terrified Gauguin with a razor in the public gardens then hacked off his ear and presented it later that night to a prostitute in a local brothel. Van Gogh himself described his mood as a period of insanity and soon afterwards entered an asylum.

A quick look at the letters reveals how the latest theory has been concocted. As he recovered from his wound, Van Gogh answered a request from Gauguin, who’d left Arles, to send on his fencing gear. The wording of Van Gogh’s reply is perhaps odd – he connects a reference to the fencing equipment to a refusal to give Gauguin his painting Sunflowers as a memento. Later he jokes about the fencing equipment as “these terrible engines of war.”

I suppose allusions like this could be built up into the theory that Gauguin drew his sword on Van Gogh. But surely in that case even Gauguin wouldn’t have had the cheek to demand the Sunflowers as a parting gift? For me the conclusive evidence is probably Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear in London’s Courtauld Gallery. It associates his injury with his vocation as an artist and a martyr. Van Gogh displays his bandaged ear in a way that accuses himself, not anyone else.

Gauguin always gets a bad press. His paintings are terribly misunderstood and undervalued. Now he’s being fingered for wounding Van Gogh. Yet the passion of Van Gogh makes his self-mutilation a perfectly plausible expression of his character, which fits the intensity and sadness of his poignant works.

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