The eyes looking at you, a gull, green overcoat, blue cap with dark fur, and the familiar, slender face of Vincent Van Gogh with no expression, yet expressing so much. Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear is very quick at getting anyone’s attention because of the very reason it is named after; a bandaged ear. Here’s the story behind why Van Gogh cut off his year and how this painting deserves all the attention it gets.
There is a beautiful symmetry in the way Van Gogh has placed himself in the painting. One side has a blank canvas and the other side has a print painting hanging on the wall. The color palette is garish yet subdued. And the most striking thing we see in this painting is the reduced chaos in the brush strokes. More on that later. But have a look at the painting and then we’ll discuss the interesting components of it.
Decreased chaos in the painting
From the other paintings that Van Gogh has painted, this painting to me looks like the least chaotic one. There is a sense of calmness, a period of relief in the setting and the eyes of the subject.
It is well known that Van Gogh had a troubled mind. What was the ailment he suffered? No one knows. But he suffered. The reason behind him cutting his ear off will be discussed later, along with a darker reason. What you see here is the calmness after a storm. The painting was completed weeks after the self-mutilation occurred.
The painting was created inside the room in Arles, where van Gogh lived with another fellow painter and friend Paul Gauguin. Gauguin left after the whole ear-mutilation event, without bidding farewell to Van Gogh. This wasn’t because of any disdain but because Gogh was taken to the hospital.
I think that Self portrait with bandaged ear shows more than just the cause and effect of a physical event; cutting the ear and bandaging to heal it. The symmetry, the straight brush strokes also indicate simplicity in terms of emotion. Maybe this was the time when he realized what he did, the fervent rage that took over him.
The painting not only shows the healing ear but also the healing painter. The calmness after the storm. The realization in the eyes.
The painting within the painting
As mentioned before, there is another painting hanging right to Van Gogh. This isn’t a photograph in which background objects are often there by pure chance. Van Gogh put that painting and even manipulated it for a reason.
Van Gogh appreciated Japanese art. He was inspired by many Japanese artworks and art forms, especially Hokusai, the painter who made The Great Waves off Kanagawa. You can read about that painting here.
The painting behind Van Gogh is Geishas in a Landscape by Sato Torakiyo. The word geisha in Japanese means a female entertainer. And this is where we start connecting the Japanese influence in this painting to the probable Japanese connection in self-mutilation.
Why did Van Gogh cut his ear off?
With a disturbed mind, Van Gogh suffered from bouts of paranoia, outbursts of anger, and some modern psychologists even suggest that he suffered from bipolar disorder. It is said that when Gauguin lived with him (for nine weeks), they argued.
This argument led to Gogh losing control and cutting off his ear. This fits well. But what he did after that was something even more bizarre. He offered his severed ear to a woman named Gabriel Barlatier and told her to keep it safe. She worked as a maid in a brothel.
Other sources suggest that it was a prostitute named Rachel. No matter what the name or profession of the girl was, Van Gogh wrote to his brother in his letters that after having that fervent episode, he gave his ear to the girl. What does this suggest?
There is a Japanese tradition called Shinju in which two lovers commit suicide mutually to prove their love’s genuineness. In the lower levels of this practice is the exchange of love tokens. These love tokens could be anything from strands of hair to body parts.
Was Van Gogh’s offer of his severed ear related to this practice? Perhaps it was the mixture of both mental pressures, anger, fear, madness, and external influences. After all, his psychiatrist said that Van Gogh is very impressionable, a statement even Van Gogh agreed with.
There is so much about the artist that we don’t know. So many questions about the mysterious mind of Van Gogh that was ever so turbulent, ever so chaotic. And what his hands did was to portray perhaps a small part of that chaos into the canvas.
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear has far more than its name or its content. The man you see in the painting is not just a self-injured man healing slowly when he gets a moment of calmness. The man is also healing his mind and the damage his mind has done to itself. You have to take the very seat in the very room where Van Gogh is sitting. And then…
Then look into the distance, feeling the chaos inside you, all your fears, all your anxiety, all the timidness brought upon to you by the vicissitudes. The frightened face that you’ll see is what Van Gogh is showing in this painting. The chaos has calmed down and for once he sees what he is.
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