Learn all about his ear – at Amsterdam’s van Gogh Museum

This exhibition opened 10 days ago and will run till 25th of September 2016. It focuses on the last two or three years of Vincent van Gogh’s life and his illness. Unlike the previous temporary exhibition at Amsterdam’s van Gogh Museum, this one covers only the ground floor of the museum’s exhibition wing.

DSC00031According to the museum’s ad, the exhibition “On the Verge of Insanity” tries to answer questions like “Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear? What precise illness did he have? And why did he commit suicide?”

This does not mean that after visiting, one has all the answers to these and related questions. As was already made clear at a previous exhibition “How Vincent van Gogh became world famous”, at another museum, experts still squabble about van Gogh’s illness.

All the proposed medical causes are listed on one of the exhibtion’s walls. A few are now considered wrong, but others may still be right. In September, the van Gogh museum organises a two-day-long symposium, where medical and psychological experts will discuss various probable diagnosis and art historians the effect of illness on van Gogh’s art.

Near the wall listing possible medical causes, lies a revolver. It was found near the place where van Gogh shot himself and may be the actual weapon he used. Nearby are drawings of him on his deathbed. As with much in this small exhibition, it is upsetting to learn it took Vincent two days to die and to read  his brother Theo writing about his hopes that Vincent might survive.

The exhibition starts with work Vincent made just before his first breakdown. After entering and looking at these, one can choose to go left or right. Personally, I think it is best to go left first and return to the right part afterwards.

The left continues chronologically with van Gogh’s plan to start an artists’ colony and Paul Gauguin joining him in the “yellow house”. It not only shows portraits the two artists made of each other. It shows letters and documents concerning the ear-incident, including the Gaugain’s first letter about it.

No idea why there are apparently several accounts of what Vincent did to his ear. The exhibition’s solution is the one taught to me decades ago.

The left part of the exhibition records the hospitalization, care, hostility Vincent experienced after this incident. There are paintings and drawings he made, once he was well enough to start working again. This part merges with the right part of the exhibition just before the exhibition focusses on Vincent’s suicide.

The right part of the exhibition concentrates on Vincent’s life after he committed himself to a care home. It shows the kind of care patients received at the time: less than basic. There are two impressive portraits by van Gogh of fellow inmates.

Iris 1Once one has seen the complete exhibition, listened to excerpts from letters, watched the two videos which illustrate Vincent’s productivity before, during, and after attacks – one begins to understand why he committed suicide.

Vincent van Gogh created many of his most vibrant works during these years. The cornfield he paints from his bedroom window simply crackles with sunshine and warmth. Other works from this period can be admired in the museum’s permanent collection.

It may have been the corn fields, so much yellow on show, or the casual text stating Vincent was forbidden to draw and paint at a certain moment – and how this affected him.  All of a sudden, I remembered “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which describes the effect of not being allowed to work upon a female writer. It was publish in 1892, only 2 years after Vincent van Gogh committed suicide.

After visiting this moving exhibition, your ticket gives you access to the museum’s permanent collection. However, before admiring more works by Vincent, it might be a good idea to spend a short time at the museum’s restaurant or visit one of its shops. This provides a break between Vincent’s tormented last years and the museum’s permanent collection which covers his whole career.

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam: “On the verge of insanity”
“Van Gogh’s Ear”, Bernadette Murphy, Penguin Books, 2016; available in English and Dutch at the museum’s shops and through Amazon.
“The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, available in many translations since its first appearance in 1892.



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