Bernadette Murphy, ‘Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story’ (2016)

van gogh portrait with bandaged ear

Whilst I’m now a teacher, prior to changing careers in 2015 I worked for nearly twenty years in local government, specifically in the management of archive and local studies collections. One job came with the title ‘City Archivist’ which one colleague – who shared the same name as me – assumed was a fictional role he’d been assigned when he was mistakenly invited to a training event in my place.

This niche occupation brought me into contact with a fascinating range of people – not just students, academics and the media, but also a wide range of amateur historians. These were people proud and passionate about the history of their local area, and always willing to share what they knew. I found their enthusiasm infectious, and will never forget their generosity with both their time and their insights.

I was reminded of these exceptional individuals reading Bernadette Murphy’s wonderful biography/art history/memoir Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story. From the very beginning, Murphy is clear about her own status; she is not a professional historian but rather a enthusiastic amateur, someone hooked by a fascinating story and tenacious enough to keep digging. For me, this made her achievement all the more poignant and remarkable; and the story that she tells is full of remarkable and intriguing nuggets about one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated visual artists.

Everyone has heard the story of how Van Gogh, driven mad by a combination of absinthe and a difficult artistic temperament, cut off his ear and presented it as a gift to a local prostitute. But how well do we know it really? As Murphy demonstrates, this tabloid-esque summary is very far from the truth. The author does an excellent job not just of describing the incident itself – of Van Gogh sitting in front of the same mirror he used for his self-portraits and slicing off his ear with a straight razor – but also of the build-up to it.

Murphy explores the reasons why Van Gogh came to Arles in 1888. He saw the move to the south of France not only as a chance to develop as a painter but also to set up his own artistic community. At first, when the artist Paul Gauguin joined him, Van Gogh’s dreams looked like they might become a reality. But when this friendship broke down Van Gogh’s fragile mental state was shaken, and not for the first time. Reading Murphy’s book, it’s hard not to feel a great deal of sympathy and pity for this optimistic but ultimately tortured young man.

Van Gogh’s recovery after his self-mutilation forms the most sombre part of the book. One particularly unpleasanr fact from this period was the organising of a petition by some of the residents of Arles. They wanted Van Gogh removed from the town, viewing his erratic behaviour as a potential threat – although the underlying motive may in fact have been Van Gogh’s eviction from the lucrative house he was renting. Whatever the truth, I struggled not to feel angry on Van Gogh’s behalf at this clumsy attempt to further unsettle a fragile man who was already struggling to pull himself back together.

One of the other great pleasures of Murphy’s book is its use not only of Van Gogh’s paintings, but also other illustrations – letters, drawings, maps – which help to tell this intriguing story. Given Van Gogh’s considerable mental struggles – which he laid out honestly in his letters to his brother Theo, and which Murphy makes excellent use of – it’s remarkable how prolific an artist he continued to be during this time, continuing to paint throughout his confinement at the local asylum. These are paintings which feel very familiar, even to an eye as untrained as my own. But despite Van Gogh’s work being seemingly everywhere, Murphy’s book is valuable in showing another side to this singular artist; and for that alone it was well worth the time I invested in it.

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