SELF-PORTRAIT WITH BANDAGED EAR
BY VINCENT VAN GOGH
This is one of my favourite paintings, a picture I simply never get tired of looking at. It is the perfect example of why some artists deserve the title of ‘great’ on the one hand and a work that carries with it so much biographical information about the artist on the other. You could argue that any self-portrait is full of the artist’s own biography, but some, like this one, are far more intimate and revealing than others. I’m lucky – living near London – that this is a painting that I can easily visit and see for myself. A result of Van Gogh’s meagre lifetime sales is that most of his works stayed with his family and then were gifted to what became Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum – one of the finest museums in the world. This painting, however, found its way into the possession of Père Tanguy and then some major Van Gogh exhibitions at the start of the 20th century before being bought by the redoubtable Samuel Courtauld. Hence it now resides in London’s Courtauld Gallery and is one of their many treasures. Not only is it one of the most important paintings in the entire Courtauld collection it is clearly one of the most celebrated self-portraits in the entire history of western art.
The painting is one that Van Gogh painted around 6th January 1889, two weeks or so after the notorious quarrel with fellow artist Paul Gauguin who was staying with him in Arles in the south of France. According to Gauguin, after supper and a big quarrel Van Gogh followed him out into the night with a razor blade. Then the two of them had another confrontation, went their separate ways and the next thing Gauguin knew the police had called him the next morning and discovered his friend and rival had gone to hospital because he lacerated part of his ear (or perhaps even his whole ear, which would have been an extraordinary feat – what pain he must still have been in while painting this) and then gone to the local brothel and had given it to a prostitute apparently called Rachael. The painting itself is layered with all these investigations of self-exploration, self-revelation and self-mutilation. Those stunning vibrant green eyes seem to pierce the viewer as we confront him confronting himself.
To the left over his shoulder is a blank canvas; it seems as if there was an image on it but then it’s been over-painted, and one of the theories is that Van Gogh, in the aftermath of this mental breakdown and self-mutilation, is starting to fear his creative powers are waning. The blank canvas, it is suggested, mirrors Van Gogh’s fear that he can no longer paint. The other painting in the background is a Japanese woodblock that he owned – and reflects the importance to Van Gogh of Japanese art. One simply can’t fully understand Van Gogh without comprehending the impact that Japanese art had on him. He and indeed all the artists we know by the collective name ‘Impressionists’ and ‘Post-Impressionists’ were knocked sideways by the arrival of Japanese artworks, none more than Van Gogh. Indeed, it played a significant part in his decision to go to the south of France.
Our film Van Gogh & Japan explores this remarkable and vitally important story. Van Gogh travelled south to find his ‘Japan’ but also in search of community, creativity and inspiration. Instead he found heartache and pain. As an artist that never shied away from depicting himself as he was, here we see him expressing his sense of anguish and crisis – and, at the same time, acknowledgement that ‘this is what I did and this is who I now am’. Remember, this is an artist (as our other Van Gogh film A New Way of Seeing so carefully shows) who doesn’t start painting till 1880, and doesn’t make his first major work until about 1885, then goes to Paris for two years and learns from the Impressionists and then to the south of France where he begins a two year period from the beginning of 1888 to his death in the summer of 1890 in which he paints the majority of the artworks we now all recognise and admire.
Imagine: in the last 80 days of his life, alone, he paints 90 pictures – among them many masterpieces. He was an extraordinary man and artist – and I am reminded of it every time I stand before this particular painting. But he was also a man troubled intermittently by mental anguish, driven to self-harm and, again, that too is conveyed in this great work.
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