Book review: “van Gogh’s Ear” by Bernadette Murphy

When there is a hype, I prefer to wait till it has blown over and then see if all the fuzz was just marketing and pitching. So it took a while for me to read Bernadette Murphy’s book “Van Gogh’s Ear”, despite it being closely linked to the Amsterdam van Gogh Museum’s summer exhibition which terminates 25th of September 2016.

van-gogh-ear-bernadette-murphyThis does not mean that I found the book an awful read or can not recommend it. The complete opposite is true! I finished reading “van Gogh’s Ear” in about 48 hours, needing another day or two to recover from lack of sleep.

This book reads like a detective story and before you know it, you are hooked. You think you are familiar with the facts. Or at least: what everybody claimed to be the facts. The book proves most of these facts are presumptions and myths.

To me, it was no news that van Gogh cut off his complete ear.. But plenty people seem to have been told, it was just the lobe. We all know the incident happened, while he was living in France. Well, that the incident happened in Arles is one of the few facts which remain standing.

It took Ms Murphy years and a massive dose of dogged determination to reconstruct what actually happened. She took on French officials, historians, experts. Promising leads turned into dead ends, but there were also lucky breaks. She convinced staff of the van Gogh Museum, as well as many other people, to help her.

The result is this fascinating book, reconstructing not just what happened that evening. It goes into van Gogh’s family history, his life, the months before the incident, what likely happened during the day, what took place afterwards – right up to van Gogh’s ultimately successful suicide attempt, months later.

The book was hyped and much was presented by publishers and press as “new” research, new discoveries. These sales tactics put me off. The blurb, some reviews, plenty advertisements described things which simply were not new to me – and many other readers. What the hyping managed not to reveal,was how Bernadette Murphy managed to blow holes in practically everything known about the incident with van Gogh’s ear.

Though the book focuses on roughly the last two years of Vincent van Gogh’s life, it also goes into his family history and family relations. Ms Murphy for instance uses Vincent’s letters, not only to his brother Theo, but also to other family members, friends, fellow artists. Her extensive research also uncovered many lost documents, papers, and other printed matter. It is interesting to read, that Vincent van Gogh’s own parents tried to get him committed to a “mental care home” long before what historians, art historians, journalists, writers, researchers and so many others considered to be “the day Vincent went mad”.

Ms Murphy presents an interesting case for what may have been Vincent’s illness. Nevertheless, she also points out that no definite conclusions can be drawn due to a lack of documents, diagnosis, the concept of insanity at the time when Vincent lived. Her book has a long list of literature she used, including many books on Vincent’s illness, which actually remains a mystery.

Bernadette Murphy also brilliantly describes the Provence then and now. She manages to trace the girl to whom Vincent handed his “present” and goes into why he may have done so. This girl’s history is as impressive and moving as Vincent’s, but has a happy end.

It is horrid to read how Vincent was pestered out of the home and town he had considered a safe haven. Many people familiar with mental illness may also be familiar with similar stories. Some attitudes have not changed much. In Vincent’s case, it turns out to have been a combination of the incident, friends moving elsewhere, ordinary people easily led, and especially two scheming, influential property developers. Just one example of the many facts which Bernadette Murphy’s research uncovered.

Another example of research clarifying things, is the version which Paul Gauguin wrote years later. Like so many accounts, this one proves to be unreliable. Of course, Hollywood’s interpretation has not helped either. And what to think of French 19th century journalists, simply not bothering to find out the painter’s real nationality and penning down “Polish”?

vincent-van-gogh-paintingEven if one is not that interested in van Gogh or his paintings or even art, this book is well worth reading. It can be read as a detective story, a human interest one, a biography, a history based on facts, and much more. It tells a harrowing story of a man experiencing devastating set-backs, his problems with coming to terms with his illness, and ultimately, seeing no way out. At times, the reader feels deeply for Vincent, but also for his friends and family caught up in it all. This page-turner will not leave you untouched.

“Van Gogh’s Ear” by Bernadette Murphy, is available as hard cover, paperback, kindle and in several translations through Amazon and bookshops.

Amsterdam’s Vincent van Gogh Museum’s exhibition “On the verge of insanity” can be visited till the 25th of September 2016

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