Tom Sutcliffe: To hell with art, look at that brawl

The Week In Culture

Share
Related Topics

It isn't easy to write the recipe for a fine art story that will get covered on both sides of the Atlantic (and both sides of the Channel) and which will run in publications high of brow and those low in patience for cultural coverage. A bit of blood certainly helps, though, even if it's had 121 years to dry – and the story that two German academics had advanced the theory that Van Gogh never actually cut off his own ear had no trouble finding page space earlier this week.

If you managed to miss it, it went roughly like this. The traditional account that Van Gogh had sliced off his ear in distress was actually a cover-up, intended to conceal the fact that the painter Paul Gauguin had amputated the most famous pinna in Western Art with a fencing sword during a row. Other elements of the story remained untouched by their research. Van Gogh still wraps the ear up and presents it to a prostitute called Rachel as a rather grisly (and gristly) token of affection. But the authorship of the cut itself has been reattributed.

Quite how the authors have managed to pad out this implausible theory to fill an entire book isn't easy to say without looking at a copy, though one piece of broadcast coverage suggested that you will learn possibly more than you want to about the anatomy of the head and ear. And it would obviously be a bit premature to dismiss the story as nonsense without looking at the evidence in detail, even if the evidence actually quoted in some stories seems gauzy and insubstantial – a matter of ambiguous remarks and odd annotations, which rather depend for their evidentiary weight on the assumption that Van Gogh was painting with a full set of colours at the time, rather than already half mad. (As it happens, the two authors, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, do make this assumption – arguing that Van Gogh's suicidal instability was a consequence of the incident rather than leading to it.)

You might think that it requires a very steady hand to slice off a man's ear with an épée without also seriously injuring his neck and shoulder, but perhaps the theorists have covered that one experimentally.

What you can do, I think, is ask why the story interests so many people who wouldn't give a toss if something of real artistic interest had been discovered about Van Gogh – that his artistic procedure, say, was the opposite to that which had always been believed. Obviously, the melodrama helps a lot here – instead of just one great painter going doolally with a razor we have two great painters rucking in the streets like a pair of football hooligans, a brawl that ends with an earlobe somersaulting (in spaghetti Western slow-motion) to the cobbles. And if you actually bought the story it would, I suppose, make it a bit tricky to look at all those Pacific Gaugins without thinking of him scrabbling to pick up Vincent's ear and then bending the one remaining one as they worked out their story.

But, even so, the story would hardly have got more prominence if it had been established, through painstaking X-ray work, that Gauguin had painted the Sunflowers rather than his friend.

In fact, this is a kind of forgery story. Van Gogh's ear is one of the lowest- common-denominator bits of culture we have – a staple of comic sketches, cartoons and pub knowledge. It acquired that status because this supermarket tabloid detail is a lot easier to grasp, and more instantly gratifying, than sitting quietly in front of one of the paintings and actually thinking about it.

In that sense the ear-chopping is Vincent van Gogh's masterpiece for a lot of people – the consummate demonstration of his tormented genius. Without it, he would be just another artist – and however good they are, they don't get the coverage commanded by guys with knives.

For London or a legacy?

The compulsion to create landmark buildings is one of the occupational ailments of high municipal office, the civic bureaucrat's equivalent of white-finger or miner's lung. Boris Johnson appears to have gone down with a bad case with his announcement that a residential bridge across the Thames is one of a number of proposals he's considering to change "the look and feel of London greatly for the better". We'll have to wait and see which of Boris's grands projets make it off the drawing board but in the meantime I can't help thinking there might be less flashy and self-advertising ways of improving the city and making the river Thames a true focal point. The great missed opportunity of the Millennium was Richard Rogers's suggestion to create a linear park along the north side of the Thames – by burying the traffic and allowing more direct access to the water. If Johnson wanted a legacy that would last hundreds of years, rather than just a few decades, he should be working on ways to make that happen, rather than by putting the mayoral shoulder behind a gimmicky bridge. And if he actually pulled it off, it would only be fair to call it Boris Park.

I was greatly looking forward to Tamasha's adaptation of Wuthering Heights, which marketed itself as a Bollywood take on Brontë's classic, shifting the action to the deserts of Rajasthan. In the event, the execution was a bit disappointing and distinctly under-spiced. Money is probably one explanation for this, it being rather expensive to field a 50-strong troupe of dancing girls for a touring production. But I wondered whether timidity about the concept had also played a part – a feeling that if you were going to tinker with an English classic, you had better make the result as tasteful as possible. If so, it was an error of judgement. You get a hint of what might have been in the evening's only ensemble number – a kind of Indianised version of the Ascot-races scene from My Fair Lady – which has the right bounce and zing and colour to it, even though it's still a little under-populated. In an interview, Kristine Landon-Smith, the director, hinted that there had been enquiries about transferring it to the West End. Given that the central concept works quite well, one can only hope that she finds a collaborator who, along with the money, will bring a sufficient degree of shameless vulgarity to do it justice.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own