Vincent van Gogh
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear
Van Gogh’s interest in Japanese prints was something he had in common with artists such as Monet.
However a sinister link might also be made between Van Gogh’s actions and the Japanese custom of shinju, a culture of refined prostitution based on the mutual exchange of love tokens. This escalated from love letters, often sealed with drops of blood, to snippets of hair, finger nails and even severed fingers. Van Gogh described the part of his ear that he handed to the prostitute Rachel as a ‘precious’ object to be treasured. It is hard to know whether Van Gogh can have been aware of this link.
On the night of 23 December 1888, Gauguin had been concerned by Van Gogh’s behaviour and had decided to spend the night in a hotel. When he returned to the Yellow House the next morning, he found that the police suspected him of mutilating his friend. If Gauguin is to be believed, the police seemed initially to think that Van Gogh was dead, and it was only on Gauguin’s suggestion that he was taken to hospital.