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As an attention-grabbing gesture, cutting off your ear is hard to beat.

It’s weird and gruesome enough for a work of crime fiction: “The Case of the Artist’s Missing Ear” as Arthur Conan Doyle might have called it. In the denouement, Sherlock Holmes could have revealed that, in fact, the bloody deed was performed by a suspicious character who was lurking at the scene: one Paul Gauguin. This is just what has been proposed in “Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence,” a book by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, published in Germany.

This book, according to London newspapers the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, asserts that Gauguin, who was staying with Van Gogh in Arles, France, as a somewhat unwilling guest, sliced off his friend’s ear with a sword during a dispute (Gauguin was a keen fencer). The two agreed to cover up the crime, for which Gauguin’s punishment might have been severe.

I don’t believe a word of it. This is not the first time it has been suggested that Gauguin might have been the aggressor in this odd art couple. The psychological motive for the suspicion is, I suspect, that many people don’t like Gauguin, and identify with the suffering Van Gogh. That’s the reverse of the effect the two men had in reality. Quite a few contemporaries liked and admired Gauguin; almost everybody, including his brother Theo when they lived together, found Van Gogh’s company unbearable.

Personally, when writing my book, “The Yellow House,” which describes the nine weeks when the two painters shared a tiny dwelling, I developed some sympathy for Gauguin, stuck as he was with a hyper-talkative, semi-alcoholic companion who was slowly going mad.

Doubtless Van Gogh was difficult, yet is there any solid evidence that Gauguin attacked him? No. To be fair, there aren’t many established facts in the strange case. Van Gogh never said much about the affair, possibly because he didn’t remember it well. He was unconscious and delirious in the immediate aftermath, and intermittently deranged during the remaining year and a half of his life. He shot himself in July 1890.

A local newspaper reported that at 11:30 on Dec. 23, 1888, Van Gogh handed in his severed ear at a local brothel; the recipient of the grisly parcel, a certain Rachel, was understandably upset. This story was substantiated by the policeman who investigated the incident.

Otherwise, all the first-hand information comes from Gauguin who wasn’t, admittedly, an ideal witness. Vague about facts at the best of times, Gauguin was dying and dosed with absinthe and morphine when he wrote his most detailed account. Not surprisingly, it’s full of inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

In a gripping passage, Gauguin describes how he left Van Gogh’s house that fateful evening after an argument. While crossing the square outside, he heard “a well-known step, short, quick, irregular. I turned about on the instant, as Vincent rushed forward toward me, an open razor in his hand.” Gauguin claimed he quelled the madman with a glance.

Many have doubted that happened; it may be a story Gauguin invented to absolve himself from the guilt of having deserted his poor friend. That’s plausible. But to suggest that the glittering blade was actually in Gauguin’s own hand, and that he used it on Van Gogh’s ear is a leap into wild conjecture.

The evidence, such as it is, points to Vincent. Presenting a severed ear to a local prostitute then scampering off into the night is erratic behavior, to say the least; it fits convincingly into a pattern of behavior that could encompass bizarre self-mutilation. Conspiracy theories, though, have their own allure. From now on, I’m sure that many people will firmly believe that it was Gauguin who did it.

Martin Gayford
Bloomberg

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