An application of experimental art history to imagined psychological and physiological states of Vincent van Gogh during his famous episode of self-mutilation based on first-hand experience of the author with vicarious interpretation in the context of the artist's body.

Keywords: Vincent van Gogh, self-medication, transhumanism

1. Experience

Whilst learning to paint with oil, I picked up all of the bad habits of my wonderful and misled mentor: I used the studio sink to wash out cheap bristle brushes laden with modern pigments [i] by rubbing them against the palm of my hand with Savon de Marseille [ii] and running water [iii]; I smoked self-rolled cigarettes with paint-laden fingers, probably ingesting more gaseous cadmium than the surgeon general recommends; and I drank alcohol because brushstrokes become more fluid and decisions more intuitive when the painter has had a few – as Professor Bill said: “In vino veritas, in aqua sanitas!”

One night in the winter of my third Semester I was busy working in the attic studio on the corner of Fratney and Townsend in Milwaukee's Riverwest. The portrait of my ex-girlfriend was progressing nicely, but it needed a background. I washed out my brush in the mason jar and went downstairs to make a fresh drink and take a break from the turpentine-laden air. After returning from the kitchen with my Gin & Tonic on ice with a lime wedge in a different mason jar, I “intuitively” knew that the painting truly needed a lime green background. After mixing up a buttery glaze with Viridian, Cadmium Yellow Light, Stand Oil and splash of turpentine, I slathered it across the rough chipboard, adding dirty turpentine with the number 12 flat bristle brush as the glaze got too thick. Naturally I scraped fatty bits of the paint off of the brush on the mouth of the mason jar I was using for the turps.

Somewhat satisfied that everything was right, I took two steps back from the easel, closed my right eye, squinted at the painting to see the contrasts and grabbed for my greenish drink from the palette table where I had carelessly left it. By this time the Gin & Tonic was mostly ice and lime, and the only thing that stopped me from drinking the entire jar was the impression that the rattling of ice was mysteriously missing. I took a sip of something that definitely was not my Gin & Tonic. The fumes in the room meant that I could smell nothing other than turpentine and was horrified to discover that in my haste I had unfortunately gulped down those evil, dirty greenish turps.

My face flushed spontaneously, my tongue tingled and my earlobes became unbearably hot and itchy. My eyes watering, I sprung blindly down the stairs to the kitchen, stuck my head in the sink and ran my face under tap water so cold it seared my skin. I drank as much water as I could, but that oily feeling stayed in my mouth. Shoving my finger into my throat to force my body to regurgitate the poison, I noticed that my fingers were entirely numb and I had no idea exactly where my digit was. As I expelled into the sink, I asked the last corner of conscious self-preservation in my panick-stricken being: What thins paint? Ethanol - yes. Citric acid - yes. Turpentine - doh.

I squeezed out an entire lime into a tumbler and filled it with gin. The first sip merged with the gall from my stomach acid still clinging to my mouth and burned my gums, but I gargled the drink and spat greenish stuff out into the sink. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Five or six excrutiating mouth washes later, my spit was “clean”. I then drank the three thumbs of gin left in the tumbler. After ritually crushing another lime and slopping the Bombay gin mostly into the glass – I hesitated. Could I feel my fingers anymore? Why were my ears still burning hot? Should I make a call to emergency services? Is this really happening?

I awoke early the next morning curled up in the corner of the kitchen. I saw that the entire bottle of Gin had been emptied, lying discarded on its side next to my outreached arm. But! I! Could! Feel! My fingers, the sourness in my mouth, the throbbing of my shrunken brain and the incredible pumping of my stomach – urging me to vomit again and again and again. I crawled to the bathroom, dimly aware of the bloody trail I was leaking from my palm, becoming more aware of the dull pain as I hugged the toilet. In the shower I found a huge open gash in my hand, and as I bled down the drain I shook my head at my own frivolity.

2. Research

After the weekend passed I went to the university library [iv] to find out more about what had happened to me. Because I studied at a liberal arts college with a medical program, there was an entire section about health and medicine. I discovered that turpentine oil poisoning can cause severe pain and a burning sensation of the tongue, lips, nose, eyes and ears – yet has been mysteriously used as a “cure-all” medicine both internally and topically for thousands of years.

I found out that drinking large amounts of ethanol was a cure for some types of solvent poisoning. There was even an anecdote somewhere about why house-painters exposed to modern paint thinners had such a high rate of alcoholism. The book suggested that the body's long-term physical interaction with alcohol and solvents had chemically trained it. The body “knows” that food is good for it and it specifically craves salty foods when it is deprived of sodium. Similarly, the experienced painter's body not only knows how to hold a paintbrush, it also knows how to detoxify itself from solvents by “knowing” it should have a few alcoholic beverages. (Apparently this wasn't clinically proven until recently.v)

In the section about the historical development of medicine I was amazed to find that that the ancient practice of bloodletting was still being used in Europe well into the early 20th century. As doctors became more knowledgeable about the various causes of diseases, bloodletting as a catchall disappeared in Western medicine except for a very few specific conditions. All the same, it is being practiced to this day in a wide range of alternative medicine practices.

And to make things all a bit more ironic, it turned out that some distillers of early common Dutch Gin actually added a small amount of turpentine to give their spirits a more balsamy flavor – and probably a bit of extra kick.

Unwittingly I had probably saved myself from what those who would have found me might have deemed accidental suicide. Shaken, I left the library and halfheartedly made my way across campus to the basement of the arts building to make it to my art history course. The whirring of the slide projector lulled me to micro-sleep replete with swirling starry nights and bouncing chairs. I woke with a stir and a shudder when our lecturer said the word “psychotic”. She was describing the episode where Vincent van Gogh claimed he was being poisoned after severing his own ear.

3. Synthesis

What would I have been capable of had I been drowning the sorrow of a lost friendship in alcohol and accidentally swallowed turpentine without money to pay for a doctor but enough knowledge of the world to know of a way to treat myself? Strikingly, I had been in almost exactly this situation. Of course bloodletting was no longer en vogue, but nevertheless I did lose a good deal of blood. As an artist I would never wound my hands intentionally – but would I really cut off my own earlobe?

As commonplace as bloodletting was, I too might have cut off that little bit of my ear that burned so incessantly to the point of boiling and drank myself into oblivion to numb the pain and keep the blood flowing.

On returning to consciousness, I might even have wrapped my mysteriously severed earlobe in wax paper and delivered it to my girlfriend, the nearest prostitute. Her body standing surrogate for every love I had lost would performatively accept me and my tragedy - the horrific contents of which might prove to me the interchangeability of cause and effect and prove to my critics that art and life were separable only in the physical sense.

4. Criticism

Postulation aside, were we to strictly analyse this sequence of actions as a conscious artistic act in the framework of interaction between the artist and the artist's body, it would necessarily have to be perceived as neither mad nor inane, but rather as an functionally brutal pseudo-private performance blending the boundaries between self-mutilation and audience implication: Suffering as a method of survival and madness as a symptom rather than a driving force.

Even though we have all learned to appreciate Vincent's relentlessly productive expressionistic voice, perhaps enough time has passed so that we can vicariously frame this sequence of events as a mashup of Beuys and Buren: an action of self-preservation combined with self-mutilation - and not merely write it off as a result of psychosis.


[i] Modern tube paints use a fabrication process of heavy rotating cylinders that successively create extremely fine particles of the pigment. These nano-sized particles are one of the reasons that some modern paints actually cover so extremely well. Unfortunately, nano-particles of any material are generally small enough to penetrate cell walls in plants, animals and humans. Foreign objects in cells can lead to cell death, carcinogenic malignancy and even genetic transcription errors during cell division.

[ii] Marseilles Soap is a traditional surfactant based on olive oil and traditionally used to gently remove paint from brushes. Rubbing heavy metals like cadmium or lead into healthy skin as a way to clean brushes is probably not terribly hazardous, however I personally know one person who came into skin contact with turpentine, which triggered a genetic predisposition to epilepsy. Introducing heavy metals into the bloodstream through abrasions in the skin is very hazardous.

[iii] Introducing heavy metals into the environment via household waste-water collection is irresponsible and contaminates the ecosystem.

[iv] This episode took place in the 1990's, and at all times in the 20th Century, the only more or less reliable sources of information were to be found in printed books, mentor-knowledge and peer-reviewed journals.