XV. What is the relevance of this biographical detail for the history of art?

 

Some people have argued that it would not really matter for the history of art whether Van Gogh had cut off his ear himself or whether Gauguin had done it. We don't share this view, mainly for the following three reasons:

  1. For hardly any other artist in the history of art, his personal life was so closely connected with his existence as an artist as for Vincent Van Gogh. Unable to find a place in the civil society and after having failed in various professions, Van Gogh had become an "existential" artist who lived only for his art and through his art. In his extensive correspondence he documented how intensely every outer influence, every impression, every experience in his life is reflected in his art. Not surprisingly, the particular international interest in him as an artist was unleashed by Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger's publication of his letters in 1914. Therefore, his life and his art after the incident of 23 December 1888 must be reconsidered with the perspective of the important "biographical detail", i.e. that Gauguin had cut off his ear and all the drama that it caused for him subsequently.

  2. As we have already mentioned above, many artworks of Van Gogh and of Gauguin after that crucial event will have to be reinterpreted in the light of Gauguin's involvement. That applies particularly to Van Gogh's "Self-portraits with Bandaged Ear" (F527/JH 1657 and F 529/JH 1658), the portrait of Madame Roulin as "Berceuse" (with the added rope, F 508/ JH 1671), and the later portraits of Madame Ginoux (after Gauguin's drawing, F 540/JH 1892 and F 543/JH 1895)). That also applies to many of Gauguin's artworks, e.g. his paper collage "Ictus" (1889), his ceramics of early 1889 (see this chapter here), his "Christ in the Garden of Olives" (W326, June 1889), his "Yellow Christ" (W 327, Sept. 1889), and especially to his "Sunflower" paintings of 1901 (W 603, W 604, W 606) which were actually the initial trigger for us to examine more thoroughly the living and working companionship between Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Arles in 1888.

  3. The legend of that poor and unfortunate artist who, in an inexplicable bout of despair and madness, cut off his ear with a razor, has become an integral component of a popular and cherished myth that has been passed on for generations. It has become the projection surface for all kinds of speculation. It has fostered the popular conception of the close relation between genius and insanity. And it has become the economic basis of a worldwide business, of a remembrance industry in the hands of the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum. It is time to challenge their monopoly of opinion and to get down to the facts about Vincent Van Gogh.

 

  

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