I didn’t plan on writing a book about Vincent van Gogh, in fact, if anything, I planned not to. I was on holiday after writing Slaughter, a 522 page behemoth of a book, and an incredibly draining book that squeezed a lot out of me. A lot of emotion, a lot of psychological focus, it basically hollowed me out to write it. So, when I took time off after Slaughter, I meant it.
Part of the holiday from writing involved re-balancing, especially fitness. I gained a huge amount of weight while nailing Slaughter down, and the alarm bells rang when I went over 100 kilograms – the first time ever. So I used my time off by day, to hit the gym, squash courts, tennis courts and getting back into regular Park Runs. By night, I ended up watching some of the documentaries I’d put on the back burner. One of them was Loving Vincent.
I’d seen the previews, and read some of the reviews, so I expected to be impressed by this film, the first fully oil-painted animation motion picture. What I didn’t expect, was the plot of the film. It was a true crime investigation set in the France of Van Gogh’s day, occupied by the same characters, a year after his death. It was the last thing I expected, but it certainly piqued my interest.
After the film raised a number of serious problems with the mainstream narrative [all rooted in historical fact], I trusted Loving Vincent to resolve the various riddles it had presented along the investigative/speculative journey. When it didn’t, I felt cheated, and I wasn’t the only one, but I felt something else. I saw there was clearly the machinations for a true crime case here, only, I wasn’t sure if I pursued them, what they would point to, if anything.
And so, simply being curious, I started watching more documentaries, just for fun, and reading what I could find online. The more I watched, the more it became a kind of addiction. It was very compelling. I was very surprised how much uncertainty and controversy there was around the major milestones in Van Gogh’s life history: the murkiness around the ear slicing, the mystery surrounding his madness, and best [or worst of all], the strange intrigue surrounding his death.
In this extract from Lust for Life, published in 1934, and itself a derivative from another book on Van Gogh’s letters, the author claims that apart from a few exceptions, his narrative “is entirely true”. It wasn’t even close. The film version, which appeared in 1956, perpetuated and reinforced Stone’s mistakes.
It was laughable just how wrong early authors like Irving Stone got the story, but it made sense that someone very early on screwed up, and that the world ran with the screwed up version of events. It really surprised me that Van Gogh’s art never became what it is today because it – the art – was able to stand on its own. Instead, it was the stories – especially his letters – surrounding the art, that seemed to give it added value. So how much were these stories true, and particularly the film Lust for Life, which set Van Gogh up in the American market? How true were they?
Lust for Life depicted Van Gogh as a suitably miserable, suicidal wretch. What the author and filmmakers were doing, though, was reverse engineering the end [the suicide] to fit the narrative. So they cherry-picked quotes and incidents that matched the suicide narrative. Van Gogh being Van Gogh, that wasn’t hard to do. And so, this was how Kirk Douglas portrayed Van Gogh – as so lonely, so much of an outcast, he’d sit alone while the town partied, tear his hair and burst into tears…
Lust for Life, the almost “entirely accurate” early version, also depicted crows flying into Van Gogh’s alleged last painting, literally colliding with the artist and the canvas, leading Van Gogh to change it from a wheatfield, to Wheat field with Crows. Then, immediately after that horrible experience, Van Gogh scribbles a suicide note [which the wind blows away one imagines], and shoots himself.
There’s a serious problem with this incredibly dimwitted portrayal – it’s the question of how Wheat field with Crows magically made its way back to the artist’s room after he shot himself? Did he paint it, shoot himself, then carry the art work back to his room, careful not to get any blood on it?
See, if Irving Stone was any kind of decent true crime writer, he’d have thought these things through. Nevertheless, the mythology stuck, and so today, the mainstream seem to think Wheat field with Crows [also titled Wheatfield with Crows] is the last painting Van Gogh painted [it’s not], and so it’s heavily symbolic – those crows meant he was telling the world what he meant to do.
In reality, Van Gogh’s art equipment disappeared at the same time the gun did, which is why mystery surrounds where the shooting happened. Why would that be a mystery, unless someone else was hiding something…
Also, the Lust for Life scenario depicting a suicide note is false. Yes, we’d expect an expressive letter-writing machine like Van Gogh to write a suicide note, only, there isn’t one. Why not?
No suicide note. The weapon – gone. The painting equipment he’d taken with him that day – also gone. And then the forensic evidence. Why would someone who wanted to kill himself, prolong his agony by shooting himself in stomach, and from a really weird angle? If he’d made a mess of the first shot, why not shoot himself again, properly?
Okay, so things were a bit dodgy, and didn’t quite add up, but Van Gogh said he cut off his ear, and said he’d shot himself. Why would say that if he hadn’t? That was the pertinent question that deserved an authentic answer. To get to it would require a deep dive, and that would take time and effort.
And so I dug some more. There were plenty of resources that simply recycled what other resources said, just as Lust for Life [the film] recycled the dodgy narrative of the book. As I unearthed more and more dramatisations, and older narratives, I realised just how unsettled and uncertain the Van Gogh narrative was. It had been evolving, swinging like a pendulum from one narrative to the next, one scientific discovery, one witness version to the next. What was needed was to integrate all of this information, and filter through it in search of something that held together, something that made sense.
Since I’m no art historian, I didn’t think that was something I particularly felt like doing. And if this wasn’t true crime, what was the point in establishing exactly what happened on the night he cut off his ear?
As I absorbed more and more information, again, just because I found it interesting, I began to see – intuitively at least – the possibility that if Van Gogh didn’t cut off his ear, then the madness and suicide narrative might be bogus too. All three narratives sort of reinforce one another. If you remove any of one of them, the others become quite shaky. And so, I wondered if – theoretically – it was possible to disprove any of them and thus all of them…
There was something else about Loving Vincent…a particular character that had given me an uneasy feeling. And it turned out, this sinister aspect to the narrative wasn’t cinematic license by the filmmakers, many other authors and eyewitnesses mentioned the same thing. So there was this mismatching behavior at the scene of the suicide/murder…what did it mean?
I started researching the ear narrative. This was easy to do, because Bernadette Murphy had written a book, which also had a companion documentary explicating her findings.
Murphy basically showed how the ear narrative evolved, from Van Gogh slicing off the whole thing, to a large piece, to a small piece… So what had actually happened? It seemed a pointless investigation, because Van Gogh had said he’d cut off his ear – did it really matter how much ear? Well of course it did – the more ear he cut off, the more mad he had to be, right?
As I followed the various rabbitholes I realised how much research material there was on this case. I’d expected pretty much everything to be very general hearsay, but since this is the world’s most expensive artist, I was happy to be proved wrong. And so, this was the game changer for me. The archive of evidence, versions, testimonies, was like Mount Everest. For the kind of true crime interrogation I like to do, you need a mountain to mine through, to strip down to the precious, essential ores, to expose those hidden veins of glittering gold.
I was surprised to find forensic reports and police statements. But more than anything, more precious than anything, was the virtually daily archive from the artist himself – through his letters, and through his paintings.
Since I’d written a long-form series of magazine articles profiling more than a dozen South African masters, including my great grandfather, I knew I was up to the task of analysing Van Gogh’s art. I had no idea where such an analysis would take me, but the psychological train had left the station, and I was very curious where it was heading…
Remember the sinister fellow I referred to above? He sketched this picture [below left], of Van Gogh dead, on his deathbed. In this sketch you can see the side of his face missing the ear [his left ear]. The artist was a shitty artist, which is why you tend to see what you want to see. Some people see the ruined flesh where there’d been an ear, others see the curve of the pinna. Thanks to Bernadette Murphy’s research [published in 2016] she unearthed a sketch laying this matter to rest. Sort of. The physician who treated Van Gogh produced this sketch [below on the right], clearly showing that pretty much all of the ear was sliced off.
Murphy didn’t seem particularly interested in who sliced the ear off, and even less interested in the suicide versus murder narrative. But she’d done enough for me to have a few vital pieces to set up the framework of a psychological puzzle. In another narrative, Van Gogh: The Life, [published in October 2011], more psychological puzzle pieces were proffered. The prize-winning investigative journos cunningly and compellingly disproved the suicide narrative, thus opening the door to an alternative. Again, I don’t think their version works, but their theory disproving the suicide narrative indicated I wasn’t alone in making an educated guess that that narrative was bogus.
Incidentally, even Wikipedia won’t commit itself to suicide these days, as an explanation for Van Gogh’s death.
But why be so vague about it? Either he killed himself or “others” killed him? That’s quite a big “or” for one of the world’s most famous, beloved and most valuable artists?
Again, the hurdles remained: why would Van Gogh lie about his ear, and why would he lie about killing himself…
The fact that these questions could be juxtaposed side-by-side were a vital psychological clue, the significance of which only became explicit later. Forensic evidence proved to be extremely compelling against the suicide scenario – not only had Van Gogh been shot in the stomach, but downward, away from the heart… Why would anyone do that? Because they were mad?
The more I read, the more shaky the whole narrative was becoming. I was sure I could disprove the suicide narrative, and confident there was a case that Van Gogh hadn’t cut off his own ear. I’m not going to go into that here, because the whole Gauguin scenario is a huge can of worms in and of itself. The stickier thing was the mad-tortured artist narrative. How did one deal with that, because, after all, Van Gogh’s life speaks for itself, and so does his art… That, of course, was the solution. In order to interrogate his madness, how crazy he might have been, or how sane, meant digging through those letters, examining those paintings chronologically, and working through the meat and potatoes of Van Gogh’s life.
I started The Murder of Vincent van Gogh suspecting I’d hit a dead-end that would send me back the way I’d come, with my author’s tail between my legs, and an apology. But the intuitions I set out with, bore unexpected fruit. I produced a compelling scenario that identifies a murderer, a motive and a context that resonates deeply with Van Gogh’s reality, and the contextual reality of his time. It makes sense psychologically, and explains the many odd things related to the artist’s final hours and death.
In the JonBenet Ramsey case, I suspected the problem wasn’t the caliber of research, but the lens that was shaping all of it. Was the same thing corrupting the truth here?
I considered the possibility that art historians and prize-winning researchers were simply too unfamiliar with true crime to be able to contribute meaningfully to it, which meant, maybe, I could. Many who are very close to true crime remain baffled by it, including lawyers, court reporters and some shitty true crime authors. Was that the case here, or was I being an arrogant shit?
The book has been edited by a Dutch-based editor familiar with Van Gogh’s story, but who was nevertheless blown away by the findings. So was I, and that’s not trying to blow a horn, I think anyone who approached this case through the lens of true crime, integrated the information and interpreted it, leaning on the shoulders of Naifeh-Smith and Murphy for some support [and knowing when not to], would have reached the same conclusion.
I do believe the evidence clearly supports the fact that Van Gogh didn’t kill himself, but was intentionally and deliberately murdered. The ear incident mirrors this; Van Gogh didn’t cut off his ear, someone else sliced it off. And finally, Van Gogh wasn’t mad. I’d hoped to disprove at least one of these three narratives, I didn’t expect to field a narrative smashing all three bogus skittles.
When the book was finished I couldn’t help feeling a hollow sense of why? Not why was he murdered, why lie about it? It occurred to me that the world 130 years ago, and across that span of time, hasn’t changed much when it comes to being economical with the truth. I use that word deliberately. How come the true story around the world’s most expensive artist has been hidden for so long? Who stood to gain from manipulating the masses into thinking Van Gogh was madder, more tortured and suicidal than he was, when he wasn’t? Well, can’t you guess?