“Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe” (1889). Before the moment that van Gogh severed his ear, modernism in the popular imagination was a sophisticated recreation; afterward, it was a substitute religion.
It is, in its strange way, at once the Nativity fable and the Passion story of modern art. On Christmas Eve, 1888, in the small Provençal town of Arles, the police found a young Dutch émigré painter in his bed, bleeding from the head, self-bandaged and semi-conscious, in a run-down residence called, for its peeling exterior, the Yellow House. A few hours before, the Dutchman had given his severed ear—or just its lower lobe; stories differed—to a whore named Rachel in a maison de tolérance, a semilegal bordello, as a kind of early Christmas gift. (She had passed out upon unwrapping it.) The painter, Vincent van Gogh, was known throughout the town as a crazy drunk who hung around the whorehouses too much for his own good, and who shared the squalid Yellow House with another so-called artist, even scarier than he was, though not usually as drunk and not so obviously crazy. That other artist, Paul Gauguin—after being interviewed by the police, and insisting that his friend must have sliced off his own ear in a fit—then sent a telegram to the Dutchman’s brother, urging him to come at once. Then Gauguin left for Paris, as fast as the trains could carry him, never to return.
Gauguin wound up in the South Seas, where he became the first modern “primitive”; van Gogh was hospitalized, then gently urged by his loving younger brother Theo into an insane asylum in nearby Saint-Remy, where he painted the sequence of pictures—including “The Starry Night” and “Cypresses”—that today, shown in any museum, attract crowds larger than the entire population of Arles on that night. When, after van Gogh’s suicide, in 1890, his fame grew, and the story of the severed ear began to circulate, it became a talisman of modern painting. Before that moment, modernism in the popular imagination was a sophisticated recreation; afterward, it was a substitute religion, an inspiring story of sacrifices made and sainthood attained by artists willing to lose their sanity, and their ears, on its behalf.
Last year, though, to front-page headlines around the world, two reputable German academics, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, published a book offering a very different account of what happened that night. In “Van Goghs Ohr: Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens” (“Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence”), they argue that it was Gauguin who sliced off van Gogh’s ear, with a sword that he carried with him for self-defense, and that the two artists—out of shame on van Gogh’s part, guilt on Gauguin’s—decided to keep the truth to themselves.
It’s tempting, and not altogether wrong, to dismiss the question as trivial, or beside the point. But ears do not haunt ages without reasons. It may be that there is a true parable of modern art in the gruesome little story, different from both the old one and its revision. The Christmas crisis had a real, if buried, effect on van Gogh’s imagination, turning him from a dream of living and working with a community of brother artists to one of painting for an unknown audience that might someday appear—a fantasy that was, in the end, and against the odds, not a fantasy at all.