Vincent Van Gogh’s impressionism spread over a vast and renowned body of work, but perhaps most emblematic were his mesmerizing self-portraits. Of these, furthermore, the two completed after his infamous self-dilapidating-ear incident are most dramatic—for the obvious reason of depicting the aftermath of said dramatic event. However, alongside the obvious portrayal of aggression and irrationality, the paintings almost paradoxically represent a peaceful approach to frustration. To focus on this marvel, this essay will consider, in detail, just one of these paintings: Self-portrait with a Bandaged Ear, Easel, and Japanese Print from 1889. Afterwards, I will describe how the discussed themes transfer on a personal level.
The portrait, as mentioned, was completed after Van Gogh severed his right ear after an emotional dispute with his friend and painting associate Paul Gauguin. Gauguin had come to stay with Van Gogh at his home in Arles, France in 1888 in an endeavor to paint and coincide together. The two did not, however, meet personally nor artistically and on 23 December of that year the union went full circle into complete awry: after a particularly tense confrontation with Gauguin, Van Gogh fled to a frequented brothel and mutilated his ear.
Though the painting at hand powerfully presents the violence Van Gogh practiced after a moment of extreme vexation, it also demonstrates an alternative: seeking a creative outlet to eclipse pain or stress in a calm and nonviolent manner. As explained by the Courtauld Gallery, the collection that displays the painting, Van Gogh himself “believed that the act of painting would help him recover his mental equilibrium” (Courtauld 1). Presumably, then, Van Gogh could have recovered his mental equilibrium before resorting to violence by simply painting.
While I have never gone to a self-damaging extreme, I have found myself, like Van Gogh, on both sides of frustration release: the aggressive and the creative. (Aggressive in the form of yelling or moronically punching a wall—nothing profoundly dangerous.) However—through trial and error, if you will—I have found the latter far more productive and rehabilitative. By playing a musical instrument or creating a short film, for example, I am quickly distracted and relieved; by punching a wall (or what have you) I am only perpetuating my frustration—which then, as with Van Gogh, requires anyway the creative outlet for true relief. If only Van Gogh had skipped the arbitrary first step as I have learned to do so.
As specified by Stuart Hall in “Representation, meaning and language,” a work of art may represent something straightforwardly and symbolically. Self-portrait with a Bandaged Ear, Easel, and Japanese Print exemplifies this perfectly: while a violent, abusive act is apparent from the artist’s visual depiction, a brief reading-into reveals additional information—some of which contrasts the initial image seen. Van Gogh’s portrait, in other (and more specific) words, informs its audience of the productivity of creative output despite—but possibly aided by—capturing the opposite.
The Courtauld Gallery. http://www.courtauld.ac.uk. Website accessed: 12 March 2012
‘Representation, meaning and language,’ in Hall, Stuart, (ed), 1997, Representation Cultural
Representations and Signifying Practices, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications
in association with The Open University, pp15-30.
Written in 2012 for an art history course while studying abroad in London, UK.