Sep 242007

It’s not hard to recognize a tormented soul in this face: van Gogh after the infamous incident of cutting off his earlobe. The tortured, retired and introspective gaze leaves no doubt as to the state of mind of the subject.

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Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Yet despite the surfacing inner pain, this countenance and the self-portrait as a whole communicate, and even impose, an infinite tranquility and peace of mind. We witness only the aftermath of the breakdown; the bandage has been applied, the medicine taken — the artist regained his faculties and was able to paint again. The price paid for this recuperation transpires from the eyes, but the quality of the “acquisition” is evident throughout: assured artistic skill that enabled this very painting. This unusual exchange raises many questions as to the relation between madness and creativity — questions that continue to fascinate civilization till this day.

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Van Gogh possessed an unusual, distinctive physiognomy: he boasted a very high and broad forehead but a relatively small chin. While the former may imply a strong intellectual capacity, the latter, along with the chiseled, almost feminine lips, may betray  emotional refinement, susceptibility to mood swings, or even hysteria. In a way, the imbalance of the physiognomy can be seen as a reflection of van Gogh’s personality. Eventually, the portrait demonstrates a similar mix of strengths and weaknesses, of artistic resilience and emotional fragility; it’s a technically confident and calm execution, which presents an emotionally broken man.

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Van Gogh Self-Portrait, 1888
Vincent van Gogh

There is an interesting invention (perhaps an expressionistic streak): the green of the overcoat travels on to the eyes. Here the green color combines symbolic and literal meanings: generally signifying poison, it refers particularly to van Gogh’s preferred  kind — absinthe, an alcoholic beverage known for its distinctive green hue.

The psychosomatic effects of absinthe became infamous since then, and today are sought for by artists who seek a boost  of inspiration. Rightly or wrongly, van Gogh’s personal tragedy continues to influence artists in more ways than one.

*this article has been edited at a later date

  One Response to “Vincent van Gogh: Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear”

  1. he looks a little like a old man with sunken eyes in the last portrait on the page.

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