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A Bigger Picture - an interview with Bernadette Murphy, a world-famous expert on Vincent van Gogh

Many years ago, she moved from her native Ireland to Provence and settled near Arles, where well-known events in Vincent van Gogh’s life took place over 130 years ago. She followed in the painter’s footsteps for seven years, explaining a number of mysteries surrounding his life on the way, including the famous self-mutilation. The effect of her work is the book called Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story (Ucho Van Gogha: prawdziwa historia), which received a great deal of publicity among modern art experts and found readers all over the world. We talked to Bernadette Murphy, a special guest of the Silesian Science Festival KATOWICE, about Vincent’s life in Provence, work at the border of history, criminal investigation, art and writing, as well as about her new project with Sosnowiec in the background.

Your book reads like a detective novel: in the opening chapter, the chief of the police reads the report and examines the forensic evidence and goes to the scene of the crime. Was Van Gogh’s Ear written by a researcher, a detective or an art lover?

I think right from the beginning I wanted to be like a detective story because there was an unexplained crime, and the starting point was: why don’t we know what happened that night? I wanted to write a book that people could read: a solid research, but also a page turner.

Is there also an element of fulfilling your childhood dreams? To quote your book: Ever since I was a child, I have enjoyed unravelling puzzles.

I wouldn’t call it dream come true, because I never thought of writing a book, my idea was to write a film documentary. It was the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and TV stations gradually began to convince me that I should write it, because I was doing something nobody else had done before me. But indeed, I’ve always enjoyed solving puzzles, I have great patience for them, though I’m not a particularly patient person. I like intellectual tasks, which probably comes from my childhood - we were poor, so we played cards, different games using strategy, etc. My brothers and sisters are also good at it. Perhaps solving puzzles is part of our national DNA? After all, every famous detective came from the British Isles!

In your book you point at the similarities between Van Gogh’s life and your own: you both came from the north and you were outsiders in Provence, whose community is quite closed and distrustful of strangers. Could you tell us about the personal aspect of writing Van Gogh’s Ear?

My goal was to write an objective book. It was easier for me because I’m not obsessed with Van Gogh’s work, although I was obviously delighted when I first saw them. Moreover, in Provence you can see them everywhere - on t-shirts, cloths and mugs, so I grew slightly fed up with them. Therefore, I had some distance to them. Obviously certain analogies between our biographies are inevitable. We both came from the north to the south. It was a bit harder for me to adapt, because unlike Vincent, I didn’t speak French, so I learnt everything slower. But I feel that I contributed to research on Van Gogh something that other writers didn’t have: I’m a foreigner in France, I live here, I understand the community, and I keep asking myself the same question that Vincent did. A majority of Van Gogh experts come from the Netherlands, USA, England or Japan. Living in a small place in the south of France helps me understand the mentality of people from here in a way other writers can’t. One day eleven curators from the Van Gogh Museum came to Arles. I had dinner with them. The famous mistral wind kept blowing heavily all day. IN theory, they knew everything about it, Vincent described it, and still they could not believe how powerful and rapid it was, how it hurt their eyes. It’s a rather extreme experience, but unlike other researchers, I knew it and could write about it. I was stressed to write about my personal matters in the book. I was encouraged to do this by my publisher who claimed that I understand Provence so well that I should describe my private experience. I’d never written a book before, so I decided to follow her advice. I think it was a good idea; in fact, I only reveal a little about myself.

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Bernadette Murphy, author of Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story


Referring to the British title of the book (Van Gogha’s Ear: True Story), could you please tell us how close you got to the truth and where most of the truth lies concerning what happened in Arles in 1888. Is it Vincent’s letters, database about people from Arles, press of that time, or Van Gogh Museum archives?

The truth lies in many places, but you should look in the places where nobody came before you. I found the trace of the drawing made by the doctor, which shows what part of the ear Vincent exactly cut off, thanks to two pieces of information. The first of them I got in Berkeley (California) - in the place where they’d previously told me they didn’t have it a couple of times. However, I did find a mention that said the opposite, in a letter from Van Gogh Museum collection in Amsterdam. In fact, the Museum had no idea that they had it. So I contacted the archive in Berkeley again and said: ‘You MUST have it!’ And in the end, it turned out that they really do have this key drawing made by Dr Rey. In the meantime I took the mad decision to quit my job and dedicate myself entirely to this project. I could obviously just publish the document and be famous for five minutes, but I decided I had to do it properly. I wanted to understand why the history of van Gogh was so strongly distorted. It turned out that, to a large degree, that was due to the myth that grew for years, based on Hollywood movies, among other things. For many years nobody bothered to check that „facts” that do not hold together.

One of the myths that you have challenged is that the artist was allegedly cruelly treated by the whole community of Arles. Let us remember that, following the mental breakdown and self-mutilation, van Gogh returned home, but as a result of the petition lodged by the town inhabitants he was closed again in a psychiatric institution. What actually happened?

We have to take into account the context of time. It is 1888, and psychiatric care as we understand it does not exist yet, mental disorders are poorly recognised, and if anyone suffers them, they are closed in a mental institution where they will almost certainly stay until their death. Vincent’s family could afford to pay for his stay in a private nursing home, but he was looked after there by an... eye doctor. There was no treatment, the patients would get camphor to help them sleep, and that was it. Cutting an ear must have been a shock for the community of Arles, to say the least. Despite this, the petition was signed by only 30 out of over 23 thousand inhabitants, which goes contrary to the claim that the whole town turned against him. I also think that those who signed the petition were genuinely scared for themselves and their families. In the new book that I’m currently writing, I’m going to show that Vincent’s disorders were even more advanced than I originally thought when writing Van Gogh’s Ear.
His daily behaviour was so weird that it was hard for him to find models who wanted to pose for his paintings. We should not forget that van Gogh brought and gave his ear to the girl that people in town knew [discovering the identity of this girl was yet another puzzle solved by Bernadette - Gabrielle Berlatier worked as a cleaner in a public house in Arles - author’s note]. Honestly speaking, I doubt I would be able to like Vincent. He was someone to be scared of.

Thanks to arduous comparative research, based on the handwriting, you also determined who were the citizens of Arles who signed the petition against Vincent’s further presence in town. Their descendants still live in the area. What is the general reception of your book among the inhabitants of Arles?

Contrary to other countries, almost nobody in France spoke about the petition against van Gogh. For the citizens of Arles, it was always a shameful topic, so I didn’t really know what their response to my discovery would be. It turned out, however, that this particular part of Vincent’s history was very well received. The documentary movie about Vincent I was featured in had been shown on public TV a few months before the book was published in France. After its broadcast many people phoned to thank me for revealing the truth. During the first major conference in Arles I showed a photo of the man who talked to Kirk Douglas [the actor who played the part of Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life in 1956 - author’s note] and I asked if anyone knew him. I was then contacted by the woman who said it was her grandfather. He was one of the petition signatories, which the family knew about, but had never publicly spoken about. Later on, other people reported in the same case. Truth slowly comes out. Several generations have already passed since 1888, so it’s easier to talk about it aloud.

A serious problem in your research was the fact that the part of Arles where van Gogh lived and worked had been severely bombed by the Allies in June 1944. Many objects, including the Yellow House, where the artist had lived, had been irrevocably lost. Based on your knowledge, maps and archives, would you be able to recreate the city from 1888 year on in 1:1 scale?

In fact, I’ve already done it! My Arles reconstruction model was included in the French edition of Van Gogh’s Ear, but the British publisher rejected it as too “cartoonish”. When I showed it in the Department of Heritage in Arles, they could not believe how detailed it was. And it wasn’t easy, because the city had been built for centuries, from the Roman times, through the Middle Ages and so on, and its urban layers would rather grow than be set in order. We will not find there straight lines like in Paris. I think that reconstruction of the Yellow House would be good for Arles. There is currently nothing but a lawn in its place. Obviously, it;s a question of money, time, administration. It’s a pity that of all the places related to Vincent in Arles, the only one that has survived is the hospital. Especially that the artist not only lived here, but preserved many locations in his paintings. The reconstruction of Arles took me a long time, because I’m neither an architect nor a drawer. Fortunately, thanks to digitisation of archival resources I have access to old aerial photographs, some of which I showed during the Silesian Science Festival. Some of them are really outstanding quality. For example, Vincent painted women washing clothes in a river [Canal with Bridge and Women Washing – author’s note], and in the background we see a tall gas plant chimney. In the aerial photo taken in 1919 you can see both the chimney and some clothes drying by the river, just like in Vincent’s painting. In such moments I thank God for new technologies!

“Blossoming Almond Tree” from the archive of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (public domain)


Van Gogh has become a pop culture icon: you can find his most famous works reproduced on t-shirts, mugs and pillows. Which of his hidden gems, less known works, would you like to turn our attention to?

The painting I want to tell you about is probably one of Van Gogh’s greatest hits, but the circumstances that surround it are so moving that this is my choice. Six months after he cut off his ear, Vincent went for treatment in a psychiatric hosiptal in Saint-Rémy. At first he had some better and worse days there, but at the end of 1889, one year after the memorable mental breakdown, he suffered a major crisis and was unable to create anything for the next six weeks. Then he found out that his brother had a child who was named Vincent Willem van Gogh after him, and he was to become the godfather. That’s when he painted Blossoming Almond Tree, as a gift for the boy. I love this painting because it’s timeless. It doesn’t belong to the 19th, 20th or 21st century. You will not find there a tree trunk, which would be logical. Only the short-term blossoming and branch fragments touching the blue sky. The painting was obviously inspired by Japanese art, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s extremely beautiful, simply breathtaking. You will find it reproduced on mugs, fridge magnets and many other objects which you can buy at the Van Gogh Museum. I’ve seen it live many times and it’s always greatly impressed me 

We are talking in Sosnowiec. Can you explain to our readers why we are here?

I first heard of Sosnowiec a year and a half ago, when a friend of mine invited me to take part in the project related to a family connected with the Jewish resistance movement during WWII. The woman from the family came from Sosnowiec and met her husband, who was also a member of the resistance group, in Budapest. I knew the lady very well, she died 2 years ago aged 101. She was once interviewed by the Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation for the project on Holocaust survivors. However, I did not want to focus only on 6 years of her life, which is why I came to Sosnowiec, to see the city where she was brought up before the war and try to understand the environment where she grew up. I keep asking myself the question, the answer to which perhaps lies in her youth: how did she find the courage to confront the difficulties in her life? I like to know the whole story, to see a wider picture.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Interview by Tomasz Grząślewicz

The interview was first published in Polish in „Gazeta Uniwersytecka” (issue 3 [293] December 2021).

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