Ear' ear' - Van Gogh's legacy continues...

Posted on January 26th, 2016

I want to take you back to my very first visit to the prestigious Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

It was my first time visiting the city, and after a game-changing Queen’s Day weekend, my fuzzy head and bleary eyes felt obliged to squeeze in some ‘culture’ before the end of my trip. So, sunflowers it was. Wandering around the beautifully curated space, water bottles clutched tightly to our weary bodies, my buddy and I got to talking about the Van Gogh we’d learnt at our respective schools. The Starry Night, the troubled artist, the many ways to pronounce his name, and of course, the infamous ear incident.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, oil on canvas, 60 x 49 cm (Courtauld Galleries, London). Image Source: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/avant-garde-france/post-impressionism/a/van-gogh-self-portrait-with-bandaged-ear

However, as we made our way through the mottled oil paintings and whimsical scenes, we both curiously began to notice a significant lack of information about the whole ear saga. I’d like to point out now, before you kids start heckling me, that this was before the recent renovations of the museum, so the times have of course changed. Anyway, we make it to the end of the exhibition and peculiarly no light had been shed on the entire incident. If we didn’t know any better ourselves, the man made it out of this world with two ears firmly in place. 

Naturally perplexed, I mentioned this to a Dutch friend of mine who went on to tell me that he was taught that the whole ‘hacking off his own ear thing’ is in fact a myth. Not only was this denial one of my first real experiences with Dutch pride - after Queen’s weekend I’d had a hearty introduction - but it’s something that has niggled at my brain ever since. What’s more, it appears the ear hype continues to this day, and not only in myth. 

Conceptual artist, Diemut Strebe, has actually gone and bioengineered a replica of Vincent van Gogh’s severed ear.

To make sure it’s legit, she grew it using tissue engineered cartilage cells from a direct male descendant of Van Gogh himself mixed with DNA from a stamp licked by the artist. Downright creepy, mildly stalkerish, or geniusly innovative, either way the ear is now touring the globe for all to see.

Diemut Strebe, Sugababe

Diemut Strebe, Sugababe, 2014. Image Source: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/this-ear-made-with-van-gogh-dna-180957230/?no-ist

The ear, somewhat unnervingly titled, Sugababe, was created using genetic samples from the great-great-grandson of Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother, and it’s shape was achieved based on self portraits from the artist. According to Elle Decor the name Sugababe comes from the girl group, which completely replaced it’s members one by one - gotta love an art piece with multiple pop culture references - bringing a whole new meaning to their ‘hole in the head’ hit. 

What’s more, visitors don’t just get to look at Vincent’s ear, but thanks to computer generated nerve impulses, they can talk to it too. And, of course, the first person to ‘speak’ to the ear at it’s debut in Germany last year was legendary linguist, Noam Chomsky. Because, who else? 

It may be a myth, or might be the truth. Vincent may have severed off the ear himself or that fella Paul Gauguin might have done the dirty on his artist pal. Either way, it’s still got us talking about it now and Van Gogh’s legacy continues to make waves across the world of art. Talk about a publicity stunt, right?

Written by Amsterdam based freelance writer Robyn Collinge for The Public House of Art.  

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