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Portrait of the Artist as a Swordfight Loser

May 12, 2009

Hello there. You caught me just putting the finishing touches on a painting that I’m sure will be very famous in a very short time from now. Look at how the use of light and shadows contradict the greater themes of the work. The broad strokes which denote a calculated attention to detail. The ways in which the shapes speak to you about your own life and its meaning. Why yes, it is a train. Do you like it? Thank you. You clearly have a very good eye. Would you like to have this painting? That will be $50,000.

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the traditional identity of the artist as a dark, brooding soul. More specifically, let’s talk about the crown prince of dark and brooding souls, Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. We’ve all heard the story, about how Vincent Van Gogh, obsessed with being spurned by his homosexual lover and fellow impressionist Paul Gauguin, cut off his own ear with a razor blade and gave it to a prostitute, beseeching her to “keep this safe.”

It’s an archetype artists have been enamored with for years — the struggling loner, often obsessed with love or death. The creative mind no one understands. The tortured neurotic. All of these traits can be traced back to the generalized life and tribulations of gloomy Van Gogh — or at least traced back to the 1956 biopic Lust for Life, starting Kirk Douglas. 

Since nothing in this world is safe from the incessant prying of German historians, it was only a matter of time before they ruined this wide-held artists’ legend too. While researching the life of the gloomy Vince for a new book, researchers discovered the tale of Van Gogh’s ear might not be the truth. While it’s been long believed that Van Gogh stalked Gauguin through the streets of Southern France in constant sorrow until he mutilated his own ear, an upcoming biography is poised to posit that Gauguin, an accomplished swordsman, actually sliced off his ex-lovers ear in a spat after Van Gogh threw a wine glass at him. As Gauguin could have surely gone to jail for the incident, Van Gogh — in a truce of love — swore to cover up the story and attribute the missing lobe to his own madness. 

This has to come as tremendously bad news for tortured, misunderstood, overly emotional artists everywhere, as one of the stereotype’s very forefathers may have, in fact, been so much in love that he agreed to let his pal Gauguin pin the missing ear on the former’s assumed and borderline insanity. That’s what friends are for, no?

Link: Who Really Cut Off Van Gogh’s Ear? (NPR)

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