May 5, 2009
This news item has been cropping up in (sever)al sources today. It’s the kind of story I just love. I’ll try to paraphrase it.
German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans claim in their new book Van Gogh's Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence that Vincent Van Gogh might not have sliced off his own ear after all but made up the story to protect painter Paul Gauguin who actually lopped it off with a sword during an argument.
Despite Van Gogh almost bleeding to death the two men kept a "pact of silence" in order for Gauguin to avoid prosecution and for Van Gogh to placate his volatile friend.
On December 23, 1888 Vincent supposedly lopped off his own ear and handed it to a neighbourhood prostitute. The art historians from Hamburg tell another tale.
Unhappy Gauguin was apparently an excellent fencer. He was planning to leave the "Yellow House" that he and Vincent had been renting together. With his baggage and sword he was out the door, but was followed by the troubled Van Gogh, who had earlier pitched a glass at him.
Their quarrel intensified, and, as they approached the brothel, Gauguin cut off Van Gogh's left earlobe with his sword either in a fit of anger or in self-defence. According to Kaufmann and Wildegans, Gauguin then threw the weapon in the Rhône and Van Gogh delivered the ear to the prostitute and staggered home, where police discovered him, bloodied, the following day.
The fact that Gauguin had been staying with Van Gogh at the Yellow House is not disputed but most experts think he had disappeared before the ear incident.
The historians provide no “smoking gun” to refute their claims but they use letters and diaries to backup their interpretation of events.
Van Gogh was a copious letter writer and a diarist. Van Gogh’s final recorded words to Gauguin were "You are quiet, I will be, too".
In correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo, he hints at what happened without directly breaking the "pact of silence" made with his estranged friend. As we have the complete letters between Vincent and Theo, I’ll have to look up this time period.
He mentions Gauguin's request to recover his fencing mask and gloves from Arles, but not the epée. Vincent also writes, according to Kaufmann, “that it's lucky Gauguin doesn't have a machine gun or other firearms, that he's stronger than him and that his 'passions' are stronger."
Kaufmann points to one of Van Gogh's sketches of an ear, with the word "ictus" the Latin term used in fencing to mean a hit. The authors believe that zigzags Van Gogh drew above the ear represent Gauguin's Zorro-like sword-stroke.
The historians also contend that Van Gogh had not yet gone mad at this stage. Kaufmann states "That was propaganda and all part of Gauguin's self-defense strategy"
Dah, dah, dahhh!!!