During August my writing room relocated to Italy. On the journey down through Europe I’ve come across so many inspirational places, each with a story to tell.
First stop – Amsterdam. A visit to the Van Gogh museum got me thinking – if I were able to be a fly on the wall at any time in history the moment I would choose would be in Arles on December 23rd 1888 – the night of the row between Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin that led to Van Gogh’s ear being cut off.
Who said what to whom? What led up to the disagreement? Who ended up cutting off Van Gogh’s ear?
Did the tortured genius inflict the injury on himself because he was having a mental episode or did Gauguin, a fencing ace, swipe the ear with a sword during a fight?
The traditional view – and one that the curators at the Van Gogh museum still stand by – is that Van Gogh who had been suffering from epilepsy and aural disturbances sliced off his own ear with a razor. It’s easy to imagine being so upset by voices in your head that you would want to rip off your ear in the hope you would not be able to hear them any more.
But in 2009 German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, having studied letters and witness accounts came up with a theory that Gauguin inflicted the injury – either by accident or as a deliberate act – during a fight and the pair entered a pact of silence to cover up the crime to protect Gauguin from prosecution.
When Vincent moved to the yellow house he hoped to turn it into an artists’ colony and invited Gauguin to stay with him. The two men spent the Autumn of 1888 painting, cooking, eating and drinking together. It was an intense and turbulent relationship.
Initially they initially worked well together but Vincent told his brother Theo in his letters that they fell out over their different approaches to art among other things.
In December Gauguin wrote to a friend that Van Gogh was very difficult to live with and that he was ‘poised to leave.’
He told police he had left the house after supper only to go for a walk after a row in which Vincent had thrown a wine glass at him. Vincent came after him with a razor in his hand but retreated when he saw him. At some other point when Gauguin wasn’t present Van Gogh cut off his own ear.
But Kaufmann and Wildegans contend that Gauguin packed up and left the house with his luggage and fencing sword. He was pursued by Vincent and they ended up fighting, possibly over a prostitute called Rachel or over Gauguin’s decision to leave.
Why would he have covered up for Gauguin? Because when Gauguin left he knew his dream of creating a studio was wrecked? Because he adored him and couldn’t risk losing his friendship? Because he was in love with him? Or because he felt guilty for provoking him?
Afterwards Vincent wrapped up the ear in newspaper, pulled a hat down over his wound and went to the brothel where he presented the parcel to Rachel, saying “Guard this with your life.”On opening it she fainted and the police were called. They found Vincent in his blood-drenched bed.
It was the first of several breakdowns which would eventually lead to his suicide a year and a half later.
The two artists never saw each other again. Vincent’s neighbours insisted he be transferred to a mental hospital and Gauguin left the country, spending the next 15 years in Tahiti.
In his final letter to Gauguin Van Gogh wrote “You are quiet. I will be too.”
In a letter to his brother Theo Vincent said “Luckily Gauguin….is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous weapons.”
In another possible hint about the incident he referred to a French novel in which the narrator who thinks he has killed his friend says “nobody saw me commit my crime and nothing can prevent me from inventing a story which would hide the truth.”
Kaufmann also points out that one of Van Gogh’s sketches of the ear contains the word ‘ictus’ which is a Latin term used in fencing to mean a hit.
We’ll probably never know for sure what happened on that night.
If you had the chance, what moment in history would you like to have witnessed?