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Van Gogh’s Ear

May 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Van Gogh’s Ear (1888)

by Vincent Van Gogh

(65 x 95 cm) Oil on canvas

Painted during his stay in Arles this is one of the most revealing of many Van Gogh’s self-portraits as it sheds some light on the greatest mystery of the Dutch artist’s turbulent life: why did he cut his ear? It is known that at the time of the incident Van Gogh was suffering of migraines and hallucinations caused by a new brand of paint thinner he had began using by recommendation of his best friend Gaugin who got a discount from the chemist but stuffed his nostrils with cotton while painting to avoid the poisonous fumes. Van Gogh developed an allergic reaction and a constant itch on his ears deprived him of sleep. This facts combined with an inflammation of his ears and gums led him to believe that the ears had begun to grow at an alarming rate. As a schoolboy he had been teased frequently by other kids who made fun of the color of his hair and pulled his ears to provoke him. This childhood experiences had traumatized young Van Gogh who would suffer a fit of rage if anybody touched his ears. One afternoon, when they were painting the same fruit basket to save some scarce money, fellow painter Gaugin introduced the wet tip of his brush in Van Gogh’s ear when the Dutch genius was not looking and Van Gogh reacted violently. He forced Gaugin to eat his temperas and left the room to hide inside a cupboard for two weeks. He became obsessed with the idea that his failure as an artist was caused by his ears and spent hours every day watching them in the mirror. He was convinced his right ear was getting larger every day and would eventually take over his entire head. This was what he wrote in a letter to his brother Theo dated 1888:

‘ I suffer terribly, my teeth ache and I live in constant fear of my own right ear, it is growing fast and I fear it will very soon occupy my whole head. Oh Theo, you don’t know how lucky you are to have ears that remain attached to your head and do not behave viciously. I have dreams in which I am chased by giant flapping yellow ears and I fear they will stomp me to death if they catch me. I wake up drenched in cold sweat and hear my ears laugh at my weakened condition. I fear the worst and it is taking a toll in my work as I can feel them there murmuring about my work and making derisive comments about the amount of color I use. It is very difficult to watch them and I have to carry a mirror everywhere I go to do so. I live in fear, please send me more money so I can support my miserable existence. Your crazy brother, Vincent.’

This the last known letter to his brother before mutilating himself. He painted the portrait short after and thanks to tribunal records we know that Van Gogh was the plaintiff in a case of harassment against his ears filed in the Arles tribunal. The Van Gogh vs. Van Gogh’s Ears case was swiftly dismissed by the judge as there was no precedent of a man suing his own anatomy and Van Gogh was sentenced to pay the trial costs. This was probably a big blow because that night he visited a local brothel to vent his frustration in sex and absinthe. Unable to work a decent erection he cut off his right ear in a fit of fury, as he had become convinced it was the one culprit behind of all his misfortunes while his left ear was just following the lead of its evil right counterpart. This Van Gogh’s self portrait is revealing in that sense, in the characteristically subjective and emotional style of the Dutch master it portraits his ear as he saw it: a threatening presence looming over the entire head, Van Gogh’s gaze spying with distrust in the mirror. Unfortunately in his state of drunk distress Van Gogh failed to realize that the inverted reflection in the mirror actually corresponded to his left ear, so his agony knew no limits when the next morning he woke up in bloodied pillow with the missing ear resting inside his chamber pot to discover he had severed the wrong ear.

The King with His Favorites

May 14, 2011 Leave a comment

King Louis XIV with his Favorites (1701)

by Hyacinthe Sabater

(152 x 217 cm) Oil on velvet

Known by history as the King Sun for his sunny predisposition and fantastic tannings, Louis XIV was enormously proud of his legs and was selected sixteen times the sexiest European monarch during his reign. The French monarch commissioned this painting to immortalize his legs in the company of his favorite pair of stilettos. Louis XIV shared with his mistress Marie de Roquefort a passion for elegant footwear and the king owned a collection of shoes so extensive that the entire court had to move to Versailles just to store it. Although the entire palatial compound was conceived as an oversized closet still many nobles residing there had to share their rooms with the king’s footwear. The king spent long periods of time locked in his dressing room trying shoes and other fashion complements while neglecting state affairs. Nobility titles and important political posts were awarded to some of his favorite shoes and soon their influence was felt on French economy and politics. Shoe polish production was made a national priority and shoemakers obtained substantial tax cuts and were given virtual immunity before the law. The situation soon generated widespread discontent, specially among the masses of barefoot peasants and the poor, who resented the lavish display of footwear by the king while they had to walk around with cold bruised feet.

While presiding a session of his ministers cabinet one of the presents dared to speak to the king about the growing unrest and denounced the privileges of the favorites. The Duke of Molasses who had bowed skinny legs and absolutely no sense of fashion launched into a description of the riots that were already taken place: mobs of barefoot beggars had torched a shoe store and a group of conspirators had been put to death for attempting to burrow a hole on the king’s favorite sleepers. The king listened to Duke of Morass with affected disdain and when the speech came to an end His Majesty stood up and displaying his legs proudly to the ministers said: ‘Don’t they just look sooo fantastic?’ To everybody’s astonishment he king had managed to remove his embroidered panties  undetected using the heel of his shoes while Morass spoke. Louis XIV remains to this day the only European monarch able to perform this feat and his ministers were so impressed by this display that the Marquis of Flateriette slipped a 10 francs note on the king’s stockings. The king was so pleased by this unique skill and the triumph of his looks over the political insight of the nobleman that he ordered this painting to immortalize the historic moment for posterity. The Duke of Morass’ wig was confiscated and the duke, charged with several accounts of ugliness, was sent to prison.

It’s Not Raining Yet!

The Damnation of the Pneumonides

aka It’s not raining yet! (1784)

by Pierre Josef-Louis Alphonse Étienne Eugène-François

(170 x 140 cm) Oil on canvas

Artistic merit aside, the famous depiction of The Damnation of the Pneumonides is an indictment of the subrodinate status of women under the patrician society of imperial Rome. The so proficiently rendered scene is a well known classic; Colonius three sons are about to depart towards the forum to stab senator Propicius who had raised taxes on sandals causing Colonius&Sons Sandalmakers great losses. The father wish his beloved sons farewell and wish them luck in their endevour, then reminds them of the bad weather outside and warns of the risk of catching a cold on their way back while putting the family’s umbrella at their disposal. The sons have their lances and swords at the ready but own no umbrella and fear they might have to do their killing under the rain which would ruin all their fun. In unison they raise their extended hands to show their father how they know that it is not raining yet and express vehemently their fear of being mocked by their prospective victim for carrying a girls’ umbrella to the forum. Clearly molified by his heirs’ reckless imbecility the father exhorts them to take their sisters’ umbrella anyway, pointing to the gathering storm outside. Behind Colonius the women weep in despair resigned to be deprived of the only umbrella in the household and foreboding their scheduled afternoon visit to the temple to make offering of a live ox to Jupiter. The artist portrays them leaning against each other, exhausted after a day of housekeeping but impotent to oppose the Roman law that stated male members of the family had preference of use over household appliances in case of rain. After arriving home soaked from the temple they found their father at the table telling gladiator jokes to the brothers who had never managed to kill the senator. The brothers had taken refugee inside a tavern during the storm and forgot the umbrella in a corner when they left as the rain had stopped by then, a custom born, like many others, in ancient Rome and that had persisted to this day. According to the story the sisters eventually rallied against their father after one of them died of pneumonia. The two surviving sisters devastated by the lost of the family’s only protection against that year’s particularly wet weather smothered Colonius with a cushion after the sister’s funeral. The surviving sisters were later slaughtered by the brothers who  suspected the mischief when the sisters told them their father had fallen from a tree while chasing a possum. Being possums an Australian aboriginal marsupial and Australia remaining undiscovered at the time the brothers concluded the story to be a fabrication and decapitated their sisters. For this crime the Caesar condemned the fraticides to polish all the marble of Rome using exclusively their tonges.

The Damnation of the Pneumonides also known outside academic circles as  It’s not raining yet! was commissioned to the painter Pierre Josef-Louis Alphonse Étienne Eugène-François who was the painter with the longest name in France at the time. The theme was chosen by his patron, a wealthy umbrella manufacturer from Reims who had made his fortune selling brocade umbrellas in prerevolutionary Paris. The revolution had caused umbrellas to fall out of fashion among republicans who identified parasols with the monarchy and the painting was intended to vindicate their utility as protective device against the rain.

Magritte’s Hat

Self Portrait (circa 1945)

by Magritte’s Hat

(90 x 65 cm) Shoe polish on felt

Initially attributed to the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte this painting is actually a self-portrait and authorship has been conclusively traced to his hat. Living in such a close proximity to the artist’s head for so long it is hardly surprising the hat’s work is greatly influenced by Magritte’s style and themes, as many other artists and headwear were similarly influenced afterwards.

This self portrait finished circa 1945 conveys the tensions existing at the time between Magritte and his favorite hat after an incident that almost broke their lifelong relationship. A few months earlier Magritte had sent the hat to the cleaners and it had been returned to the wrong address. After several formal protests from the Belgian embassy, the recipient, a Chinese a businessman who had reached Shanghai wearing the hat before noticing the confusion, returned the hat to Magritte by steamer boat. The the captain’s records in the ship’s log show that fear of strong winds, a common psychosis among headwear, caused the hat to spend the entire three weeks voyage locked in its cabin. When it finally arrived to Belgium it was out of shape, stained with soya sauce and pigeon droppings and it took several operations performed by a team of the best Belgian hat makers to fit it comfortably again on Magritte’s head that, by all contemporary accounts, was oddly shaped and larger than usual. This ordeal caused a serious trauma and a superstitious fear of pigeons became constant theme of the hat’s future artistic production. After the incident the hat refused to leave Magritte’s head even for laundry which after a while caused Magritte’s head to smell funny and became cause of constant friction between them.

The interdependence between them is reflected in this self portrait where the felt has assumed the shapes of the Magritte’s brain. Some art critics speculate that most of Magritte’s ideas can be attributed to his hat but this seems silly as Magritte never wore his hat while working on his paintings worried as he was of soiling it. The hat’s self portrait depicts a more gloomy landscape than it is usual in Magritte’s works. The pigeon perched on top is a looming symbol of foreboding for the hat, who always felt Magritte was using him to protect himself from airborne excrements and considered his hat a shield rather than his artistic equal. Nevertheless their lifelong collaboration was uninterrupted and fruitful: the hat modeled for Magritte’s paintings countless times and Magritte always consulted the hat about the weather before step out the street. When Magritte died in August 1967 the hat continued a solo career but never accomplished much as it couldn’t leave the spot where Magritte had left it: on top of a garden chair in the backyard of their Brussels home. It finally passed away sixteen years after its owner when as in its worst fears it was carried away by the wind and run over by a tram car near Brussels. It was solemnly buried in a hole by the painter’s grave after a funeral mass attended by the Belgian Royal Family, whose idle members had apparently nothing better to do that day.