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.Reuse content