Why did Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear?

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In Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Vincent van Gogh captured himself at his weakest, conveniently providing history with a visual guide to the madness that it has long glamourised. Aside from his suicide, the ear-cutting incident has proved a point of fascination and tragedy, mythologised to the point his art becomes inseparable from his suffering. But the events surrounding it have become blurred, both by time and a preoccupation with the whys and where’s – did he send it to a girlfriend? Did he mean to do it, or was it an accident? Why did Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear?

The portrait itself was done a week after a stint in hospital. Covered in a white bandage that wraps around his jaw, it’s a sanitised look at the self-inflicted violence. As was confirmed in 2016 with letters from the man who treated his wound, Dr Felix Rey, van Gogh didn’t only slice off the fleshy part of his earlobe, as might be assumed.

That alone is a horrific idea in and of itself, but somehow more palatable and less bloody than the reality. In a moment of desperation, he took a razor blade to his left ear and cut the entire thing from his head.

The scale of violence he inflicted on himself was a clear indicator of his mental illness and a frightening precursor to his eventual suicide. Van Gogh was constantly pushed to the brink by alienation and devastating depressive periods and was known to lunge wildly at possible cures. It’s often said he ate yellow paint in order to cheer himself up from the inside out (a myth) and would drink absinthe and wine to excess to numb the pain.

These events mean that when people reflect on the ear-cutting incident, they wonder what the aim was. An effort to excise evil thoughts, maybe? Had he gotten so much criticism and rejection that he simply couldn’t bear to hear any more?

The idea that his self-injury might have some kind of romantic logic to it defies everything we know about van Gogh’s diagnosis, which at the time was “acute mania with generalised delirium”, something resembling manic depression or bipolar disorder in modern terminology. The objective truth, though continually debated, seems to be that after arguing with fellow artist Paul Gaugin, he began to hallucinate and cut his ear, later recalling nothing about what had happened.

Gaugin had been staying with him, and van Gogh was so content with their artistic synergy that he was crushed when Gaugin expressed that he wanted to leave. While he’d been manically imagining a future where they lived and painted together, his friend had been waiting for the right moment to leave.

The idea van Gogh then sent his severed ear to a girlfriend stemmed from his next move. Still in a daze and covered in blood, he wrapped his ear in newspaper and presented it to a woman at a nearby brothel, instructing her only to guard it carefully. Throughout his time recovering in hospital, he asked for Gaugin constantly and was already planning how they might mend their friendship and get back to painting.

That manic cycle of rejection, as well as the frenzied responses to it, spoke best to van Gogh’s struggles. But that’s a detail made insignificant by the ear incident, which has long dominated van Gogh’s story, cementing him as the archetypal tortured artist in yet another rejection of his core truth.

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