Can Vincent van Gogh’s ear be rescued from the towering haystack of mainstream mythology?

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Finding one’s way to the true Vincent van Gogh, it turns out, is like searching for a needle in a haystack. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough information, but the opposite: there’s so much hay that it’s all-too-easy to get muddled and mixed up.

Take the ear narrative.  Even the newspapers of Van Gogh’s day couldn’t agree on whether he was Polish, whether he carried the severed ear holding it against his head, or wrapped in a newspaper, or what exactly he said to Rachel when he gave it to her. No one is certain who Rachel was either. A prostitute or a “respectable” cleaning girl?

To be fair, finding one’s way to the truth about anyone isn’t necessarily simple, or easy. Even those who have their hearts on their sleeves – on social media for instance – aren’t necessarily telling us who they are, as much as who they wish us to see. In a real sense, Van Gogh’s frenetic output of expressionist art was like so many Facebook posts, telling the world where he was, and what he saw. He was also very fond of selfies; even after cutting off his ear, he wasted little time in painting himself wrapped in a bandage.  In fact he did so twice, both times the bandaged ear facing towards the viewer.

Because of the mystery surrounding the ear [primarily why he did it], many have turned to these painted selfies as “self-harm” notes. It makes sense to do that, even if the analysis sometimes gets a little kookoo. That’s what I want to expose here: the experts trying to reconcile art history with a true crime scenario.

In a previous post, I provided a glimpse of my analysis of the bandaged ear portraits. In this blog, I want to look at the myth surrounding Still Life with a Plate of Onions.  This painting [below], was executed around January 7th, 1889, very soon after Van Gogh cut off his ear and was discharged from hospital. Take a good, long look at it. What does it say to you about self-harm? Does it say anything?

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Now,  if you click on the YouTube clip below, it opens at 39:09, precisely the moment the Van Gogh’s Ear documentary interrogates the heresy of this particular still life.  Check it out.

BBC: We’re now closer than ever before to the true picture of what drove Vincent, the night he cut his ear. And there’s also evidence, in the paintings, for what was really on his mind…it has proved a mine of clues for experts, as to Vincent’s state of mind that night…

According to the Kröller-Müller Museum, an hour’s drive south east of Amsterdam, which today holds Van Gogh’s Still Life with a Plate of Onions, the objects in the painting are:

…the plate of onions, the pipe with tobacco, the bottle of wine or absinthe, the pot of coffee, the calendar with the burning candle, the stick of sealing wax, the box of matches, the book Annuaire de la santé about good nutrition and hygiene and a letter from Theo.

The BBC quotes the museum, which holds the second largest collection of Van Gogh’s art [90 paintings and over 180 drawings] prevaricating over the portent of the letter from Theo. That letter, painted upside down, is the reason – they say – Van Gogh sliced off his ear. In it, Theo [GASP] tells his brother he’s decided to marry Johanna.

Think about that for a moment. Has one of your siblings ever announced their plans to get married? How did you react? Ever want to cut off your ear because someone else is getting married?

The Kröller-Müller Museum reckon Van Gogh’s reaction to this news was to cut off his ear. It doesn’t really ring true, unless one throws a large helping of madness into that theory. So that’s what they do; he was mentally unstable and this news drove him over the edge. Gauguin just happened to be there. See, the argument goes, Van Gogh had a reason to cut off his ear, but another part of that reason was that he was beyond reason. See, it doesn’t make sense.

The myth is sticky because it’s based to some extent on truth. Theo was Vincent’s patron, so Theo getting married, meant there was a potential threat to his patronage. But here’s where the art history psychology turns to crap. At the same time Theo was Vincent’s patron, he was also sponsoring Gauguin. If Theo was struggling to pay anyone’s bills, he wouldn’t have consented to pay Gauguin’s way as well as his brother’s – board, lodgings, paint supplies.

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If there was a reason to cut off his ear, it would be a letter from Theo saying, Hey bud, sorry, no more money. Please get a real job. In the hundreds of letters they exchanged, that never happened. Theo kept the faith in his brother until the very end. Theo didn’t waver when the older Van Gogh admitted himself to an asylum, nor when Theo actually married, nor even when the couple had their first child.

A better signal for Van Gogh that finances were being stretched, would have been a letter to Gauguin, from Theo, saying, Hey bud, sorry, no more money. Please wrap up at the Yellow House and good luck. 

In The Murder of Vincent van Gogh, I make the case that by cutting off his own ear, Van Gogh actually incurred massive expenditures for Theo – medical, the exorbitant cost of sending a telegram, and the expense of Theo having to travel down from Paris to Arles [from the north of France to the south] to come to the aid of his brother.

In his letters, after the ear incident, to Theo and Gauguin, Van Gogh was extremely anxious about these “unnecessary” expenses, and accusatory to Gauguin, telling him he should never have sent a letter to Theo, let alone summoned him all the way to Arles [Theo only stayed a day or two before returning to Paris].

If the older brother was worried his brother might shortchange him, then cutting off his own ear, and ratcheting up the financial damage certainly wasn’t helping that cause. So why do it?

Because he was mad?

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If he was mad why was he so conscious of the debits and credits in the Van Gogh Bros bank account? If he was so irresponsible to cut off his ear, would he really care about the cost of a telegram? Do mad people routinely sit down and churn out meticulous, handwritten letters, day after day, with carefully executed sketches alongside?

I don’t want to cover too much of that territory here. The museum is correct in that every painting does reveal the psychology of the artist. Where they’re mistaken, I believe, is firstly in selecting Still Life with a Plate of Onions as the best painting to analyze his psychology, and secondly, in their subjective interpretation of  the painting itself.

In my view, there couldn’t be more direct on-the-chin insights than in the two bandaged-ear self-portraits. These should be the first and second priorities to figuring what the artist is saying about his psychology as it was in Arles, in early January, 1889.

It’s not that Still Life with a Plate of Onions isn’t symbolic. The real issue is what do the symbols mean?

Sometimes we don’t see the symbols for what they are, we see what the symbols mean through our own filters. And so whatever narrative you’re fed, that’s going to fuel your bias when viewing his art.

The better way to interpreting the art is to know the narrative of the artist inside out, and also to contextualise his use of symbols in other paintings. It sounds complicated, but yellow, for example, is an identifying symbol. Size suggests importance and priority. Lights, like the sun, stars or a candle, indicate revelation or truth, or the Life Force.

With that in mind, let’s re-examine Still Life with a Plate of Onions.

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I appreciate the Kröller-Müller Museum interpreting this to mean Van Gogh returned from hospital, and set out the simple things on a table, in order to order his mind, settle himself, anchor his identity in simplicity. The perception is skewed, contaminated with the idea that Van Gogh was mad, and that his minded needed ordering.

I have another theory. Just as the self-portraits with the bandaged ears aren’t about a madman settling himself, neither is this still life. What’s being communicated isn’t an artist painting something in order to calm himself down, what he’s doing is painting a not-so-sublte accusation. He’s pointing the finger at the person who sliced off his ear, and his none to happy about it.

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Paul Gauguin’s self-portrait is titled Les Miserables. He has himself ensconced in Van Gogh’s Yellow House, with flowers buzzing irritatingly, mockingly around him. Meanwhile his friend, Émile Bernard, looks on, perhaps green with envy, or like a stamp sitting on the edge of an envelope. Gauguin looks bitter and moody in this portrait. Gauguin dedicated this self-portrait to Vincent van Gogh, apparently identifying with Victor Hugo’s anti-hero, a man who remains true to his personal morality despite being vilified by society. Bernard would later accuse Gauguin of stealing his ideas, and later returned the favor, painting a self-portrait of himself, with Gauguin watching him from a picture on a wall.

On one side of the table is an empty bottle of wine, on the other, a large green jug. Right in front of the bottle, is Van Gogh’s pipe. Van Gogh was rather attached to his pipe, he insisted on smoking it even after he’d been shot – that happened eighteen months after this painting.

On the other side of the table, beside the green jug, is a candle. Now, if you look at the chairs painted by Van Gogh in December 1888, just a month earlier, and a few days before he lost his ear, those paintings are also highly symbolic.

Van Gogh portrays Gauguin through rich tones of green and brown. On the cushion of the chair that symbolises Gauguin is an erect candle – the same blue candleholder is depicted in both executions. On Van Gogh’s chair, his pipe. The pipe and tobacco is right in front of the empty bottle of wine, representing Van Gogh.

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In the still life, what I see, is the empty bottle of wine, and that side of the table, representing Van Gogh. The other side, represented by the green and brown jug, and the candle, is Gauguin. Make sense? So far so, good, now – what about the rest?

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In the center of the table is a plate with four onions. Two artists, two smelly onions. Two onions are in the plate, and two, outside of it, one on the one side, the other on the other.

The onions inside the plate sort of have their heads leaning in opposite directions, an indication that the artists’ temperaments – towards life and art – were diametrically opposite. I may be reading in too much, but the two onions in the plate and the two onions outside, going their separate ways, seems to be symbolic of the artists being on the same plate, so to speak, and then, having too much on their plates, causing them to depart. And yet, in a sense, they’re apart while still on the same plate…

There’s a lot more to say about that, and the pact of silence the two reached after the incident, but let’s deal with the onion laying on the book, Annuaire de la santé, which the museum says is about good nutrition and hygiene.

The onion on the side of the plate is almost like an ear on the side of the head. The significance, in my view, of the book, echoes the significance of Van Gogh painting books in other works, including the painting he executed after his father’s sudden death.

This one:

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The bible in that painting, is a tribute to his father, a respected Protestant minister. The little, scrabby book in the corner, is a little dig at dad’s legacy. We can see, even in the trauma of his father’s death, Van Gogh’s not above adding his two cents. This is Van Gogh placing himself in proportion to his father, even in death.  His father’s book is enormous, dour and authoritative, Van Gogh’s is small, but an enervated yellow. Van Gogh’s father disapproved of him, and so the little book by Emile Zola, is like a modest rebuttal. A little like getting in the last word.

Van Gogh also painted books in his famous Portrait of Dr. Gachet, though curiously, the painting believed to be a fake, excludes them. Once again, everything is there for a reason, including the toxic digitalis plants, their significance explained in detail in The Murder of Vincent van Gogh.

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Through these analogous works, I’m simply trying to emphasise that Van Gogh inserting a book, or books into his paintings, isn’t for fun. The books say something about his philosophy about life, and in this instance, completely missed by the historians, museum and art experts is a book about health and hygiene. What is the father of expressionism, a guy flowing with words and expressing himself in symbols and colors, what’s he saying through this book?

Van Gogh places his modest little onion on that voluminous book, while Gauguin’s enormous onion with a huge plume, hugs the edge of the plate while a few black roots worm out of its rear.

Van Gogh seems to be saying: I’m basically a healthy guy, mentally and physically, empty bottles of wine notwithstanding. And since the huge health book casts a blue shadow, and even nudges directly against Theo’s letter [which is also in opposition to the direction of the book, like the onions in the plate], he seems to be suggesting conflict regarding his health. The letter is moving away from Van Gogh’s version of himself, and yet moving in his direction, like an arrow.

What? Suggesting conflicted versions about his mental health? That may seem an obvious contention, obviously there was controversy around Van Gogh’s health at the time of the ear incident. Well, it’a a lot more obvious than it seems. Van Gogh’s reinforcing the idea that he was healthy – mentally and physically – while Gauguin was calling him a lunatic. Van Gogh was healthy – he was taking long walks daily into the countryside. Was he a lunatic? Well, he wasn’t always easy to get along with, and he wasn’t always sober.

Let’s examine the painting one last time. Is there anything else that stands out?2637

Perhaps the most obvious message is the size of the kettle. It’s the biggest object in the painting, although there’s some subtlety in it. The pot seems smaller because it’s right at the back, the furthest away from the viewer, but it’s because it’s far away that one must intuit it’s actual size compared to everything else.

Most of the green pot is hidden under the rim of the table, and for that matter, so is most of what’s inside it.  It’s really the only object, besides one edge of the bottle of wine, that’s so completely obscured.

Is there any significance to the handle of the candleholder, and the handle of the pot, facing the same way, with the front pointing towards the same side of  the plate as the large, extravagant onion? Away from the book? Away from Theo and for that matter, Van Gogh himself? I think there is.

Last by not least is the stick of sealing wax. Sealing wax – used to seal letters. Why is it on the far side of the table, not beside the letter? Notice the matches, the sealing wax, and the light of illumination are all on Gauguin’s side of the table.

For those uncertain of the history between Van Gogh and Gauguin, Gauguin got the last word [and then some] on the whole ear incident. He got the last word with Theo, and because he headed to the art capital [Paris], he also got the last word with the art establishment.

When Van Gogh died, Gauguin didn’t pitch up either, but once again, he got the last word, reiterating that Van Gogh was a madman whom he didn’t wish to associate himself with. Gauguin maintained this narrative throughout his own life, while also crediting himself as a seminal influence on Van Gogh.

The sealing wax is emblematic of sealing someone’s fate. Gauguin’s departure from Arles sealed the fate of Van Gogh’s dream to start a Southern Studio. But even Van Gogh had no idea to what extent his fate had already been sealed when he executed this painting.

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Within days he was kicked out of the Yellow House, and banished from the town of Arles. After all the bad press regarding his ear, the entire town became agitated and riled up. Gossip and rumor took over.

The folks residing near the Yellow House in Place Lamartine gathered a bunch of signatures, which they handed to the mayor. They succeeded in having Van Gogh booted out of town for being a clear and present danger to society.

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With nowhere else to go, Van Gogh  admitted himself to an asylum. How many mad people do you know of, who’ve done that? To understand how this happened, one must be aware of Van Gogh’s options: they were very limited. But you didn’t get rid of Vincent van Gogh that easily. He’d figured out that it made economic sense to be a patient, since patients could hang around for free while they were receiving treatment.

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Van Gogh was treated as a patient in that he could stay there, but wasn’t regarded as a regular nutter. As such, he could come and go, and paint pretty much when it suited him, which was a fairly good result given the precarious circumstances he found himself in.

Eighteen months later, however, he was dead, and with him, the true story about what happened to his ear, and why, disappeared into thin air.

 

 

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Starry Night Over the Rhône was painted in Arles, a 1-2 minute walk from Van Gogh’s Yellow House studio. Van Gogh executed this picture in September 1888, before Gauguin arrived.

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