Thursday, May 07, 2009

Did Paul Gauguin cut off Vincent van Gogh's ear?

A self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh
Two art historians from Germany are challenging one of the key legends surrounding Vincent van Gogh-- the story involving his self-inflicted ear mutilation. As the story goes, van Gogh sliced off his ear during a fit of madness and presented it to a prostitute whom he favored. However, Art historians Rita Wildegans and Hans Kaufmann claim to have evidence that supports their theory that Vincent van Gogh’s ear was severed by his on-and-off friend artist Paul Gauguin during their final altercation.
Wildegans and Kaufmann base their theory that Vincent van Gogh was a victim of Paul Gauguin’s skillful swordplay on documents from the time. For example, they note specific letters that Vincent sent to his brother Theo and a sketch of an ear by the artist as evidence. The sketch has the word “ictus”-- a Latin term used in fencing-- upon it.
Paul Gauguin’s account from the time states that van Gogh approached him with an open razor after he informed van Gogh that he was leaving for the last time. Gauguin is quoted as having said that he was able to quell van Gogh’s approach with just a glance. In other words, Gauguin’s account suggests that van Gogh cut off his ear after the altercation. However, Wildegans and Kaufmann suggest that what actually occurred was covered up in order to protect Paul Gauguin.
Paul Gauguin's account makes sense because in many ways van Gogh viewed Gauguin as more than just a man. After all, van Gogh idolized Gauguin. True, Gauguin could have made his side of the event up in order to protect himself-- and it could be that Vincent went along with it in order to protect his idol. However, the theory suggested by Wildegans and Kaufmann does not exactly add up.
I’m not sure if I can agree with Wildegans and Kaufmann’s theory. It is true that Paul Gauguin is noted for having been a skilled fencer and was known to have carried an epee at his side-- that said, an epee is not necessarily a slashing weapon due to the fact that it is designed for thrusting. In fact, an epee does not have a cutting edge. In other words, that specific type of fencing sword involves thrusting motions not slashing. That alone places a great burden on the theory presented by Wildegans and Kaufmann.
A self-portrait by Paul Gauguin
If Paul Gauguin had used his epee upon Vincent van Gogh it would have meant that he was aiming to kill since, based on the claims, he targeted van Gogh’s head. Point blank-- an epee is designed to penetrate an opponent with a thrust-- not severe body parts with a slash. So if Gauguin had thrusted the sword toward van Gogh's head he would have most likely aimed for the eye. Contrary to popular belief that would not have been a prime target.
I'll play Devil's advocate and say that it is possible that Paul Gauguin attempted to land a skillful epee thrust in van Gogh’s direction. However, that act would not have slashed van Gogh’s ear off entirely. If anything it would have-- due to the force of the thrust-- pierced his ear brutally. If that happened perhaps van Gogh decided to slash the rest of the ear off with his trusty razor. That said, it is important to remember that Paul Gauguin was a skillful fencer.
Being a skilled fencer Gauguin would have most likely aimed for Vincent's wrist if he desired to ward him off or for his heart if he desired to kill him. Since Gauguin's account states that van Gogh was armed it would have made sense for him to thrust in a manner that would have disarmed his opponent rather than kill him-- especially since Gauguin would have most likely wanted to sustain an amicable relationship with Vincen't brother Theo.
I doubt that Paul Gauguin would have wanted to kill Vincent van Gogh on the street in the first place-- especially since he was trying to leave hostile living conditions. He obviously wanted to leave trouble-- not find it. Nevertheless, Wildegans and Kaufmann have published their findings in a book titled Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence. The book will most likely stir more controversy and speculation once it is widely available.
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor
Myartspace Blog on Twitter


Donald Frazell said...

I hope this sensationalist theory for book monies gets some discussion of serious art going once more. Lord knows we need to.

art collegia delenda est

Alexander Barnett said...

Van Gogh’s Missing Ear: Was Gauguin the Culprit?