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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Vincent's Ear

One of the most over-played stories in art revolves around Vincent van Gogh and his much-maligned ear. Mention van Gogh in any art class and you hear, "Oh, yeah, he's the one that cut off his ear." Never mind he was also one of the most brilliant expressionist artists who ever lived, or that his paintings now routinely sell for the tens of millions (on those rare occasions when one comes up for auction). Of course the ear story does open up the floor to a more detailed discussion of Vincent's mental problems and his lonely, tortured personal life, but when all is said and done, the sunflowers and the self-portraits have all been shown, then it always comes back down to that ear...that damnable ear!   

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear,
1889, Vincent van Gogh
Well, just to set the story straight, on December 23, 1888, at the age of 35, Vincent cut off the lower half of his left ear. (Although a self-portrait done in 1889 shows a bandaged right ear.)  He took it to a brothel, to a prostitute named Rachel, and handed it to her, instructing her to take good care of it.  Merry Christmas. No, he didn't say that last part, I added that myself. One has to wonder though at his timing, just two days before Christmas; perhaps he did have in mind a very personal yuletide gift. Actually, art historians and psychologists of all kinds have pondered the "why" of this outrageous act of self-mutilation for years. In June of 1981, William McKinley Runyan published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology a rather lengthy list of possible reasons Vincent might have resorted to such an act. Here are just a few:   
1.  Frustration over his brother's engagement and his own dismal love life.   
2.  Self-punishment for his homosexual impulses toward Paul Gauguin.   
3.  A symbolic punishment for a father he hated.   
4.  He was influenced by the practice of presenting the bull's ear to the matador.   
5.  He was seeking his brother's attention.   
6.  He was seeking to end auditory hallucinations.   
That's only about half of them, and some of these are at least plausible.  If you think some of them seem far-fetched, the rest are really a stretch. 

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