The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam counsels visitors not to interpret his last works as clues to his suicide – which, according to conventional wisdom, took place when the artist shot himself in a field near the doctor’s house that was his last refuge in a world he found almost impossible to inhabit. Last time I was there, a label advised against taking an overly melodramatic view of his roiling blue, black and gold late vision Wheatfield with Crows.
Now the museum has once again urged caution, this time about the claim in a new biography that Van Gogh did not shoot himself after all but was mortally wounded in a bizarre accident. Well might the Van Gogh Museum express scepticism. After all, it seems like only yesterday that “scholars” were claiming poor Vincent did not cut off his own ear after all but was injured by Gauguin with a sword. That claim soon vanished into thin air and rightly so. Will this theory be as short-lived?
Both claims have the instant appeal of challenging the “myth” of Van Gogh the tortured artist, the man “suicided by society”, in the words of Antonin Artaud. Yet both come up against the mystery of why he never mentioned that he had been injured by others. In the case of his ear, it would seem strange that he allowed himself to be hounded by locals as a dangerous madman and incarcerated in asylum without mentioning that, oh, by the way, he was the victim of an assault. Similarly in this case, asks the BBC’s Will Gompertz, why let his family think he’d killed himself if that was not the case? He managed to walk back home and survived the gunshot to his chest long enough to speak out.