This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 13 August 2016.
The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Ear: Saturday, BBC Two
An Hour to Save Your Life: Tuesday, BBC Two
The story of Vincent Van Gogh severing part of his ear as a perversely romantic gesture is almost as famous as his immortal body of work. According to legend, the emotionally fragile artist turned up at the door of a Provence brothel in 1888, and handed a package containing a bloody slice of his own lobe to one of the working girls.
It’s a sad, shocking story. But did it actually happen? As revealed in The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Ear, contemporary newspaper reports were suspiciously inconsistent when it came to details. Surely there must be accurate archive medical and police reports pertaining to the most notorious incident in the history of modern art?
Intrigued by this murky mystery, art lover Bernadette Murphy embarked on a seven-year mission to uncover the truth. A nice middle-aged lady with a snazzy line in neckerchiefs, the Provence-based adventures of this tenacious amateur sleuth are a Sunday night detective drama just waiting to happen: Vera meets Lovejoy.
Hosted by that other great tortured artist, Jeremy Paxman, in full-blown quizzical gravitas mode (honestly, you sometimes have to wonder if he’s even heard of Chris Morris), this engaging documentary managed to sustain its central conceit, even though the results of Murphy’s investigation recently hit the headlines. The journey was just as interesting as the final destination.
Murphy uncovered several hitherto unknown facts. “Rachel”, the object of Van Gogh’s affections, wasn’t a prostitute after all. She worked at the brothel as a cleaner. It’s possible that, as the victim of a rabid dog attack, she was one of the “wounded angels” with whom Van Gogh felt such empathy.
After poring through research by the author of the Van Gogh biopic starring Kirk Douglas, Murphy finally unearthed a conclusive medical diagram by the doctor who treated Van Gogh post-injury.
The great man didn’t just cut off his lobe, he severed his entire ear.
Understandably, Murphy was reduced to tears. Not only had she solved a mystery that’s eluded experts for over a century, she’d exposed the harrowing depths of a deeply troubled soul.
The programme also reinforced an inescapable point: uniquely among artists, our appreciation of Van Gogh’s work is intrinsically fused with our knowledge of his tragic personal life. He quite unwittingly forged the dubiously romanticised notion that genius and self-destruction are automatic bedfellows. While I understand the impulse to believe that – I include Brian Wilson and Peter Sellers among my heroes - it makes me feel uncomfortable.
Then again, would Van Gogh have created his masterpieces if he hadn’t been mentally ill? It’s a conundrum that even Jeremy Paxman can’t unravel.
The trauma continued in the latest series of An Hour to Save Your Life, in which cameras follow paramedics and doctors as they make critical decisions on behalf of accident victims.
Like most medical documentaries, it’s essentially a form of rubber-necking voyeurism. Yet despite its manipulative bombast – with its ticking clock graphics and split-screen technique, the production team are blatantly influenced by 24 - it does highlight the unflappable professionalism of people who hold lives in the balance on a daily basis.
All at once, it makes you value your wellbeing, worry about the freak fragility of existence, feel humbled in the presence of those who make a difference, and resent the fact that you’ve done nothing worthwhile with your life.
Marginally less troubling than The One Show, it’s an existential minefield.