BBC2 had a curious art programme this week entitled "The Mystery Of Van Gogh's Ear". A researcher writing a book, soon to be in the shops, on the subject of the artist in Arles, Bernadette Murphy, resolved differences in the story of the mutilation of his ear and his time in that town.
Jeremy Paxman, our great Inquisitor, was hauled in to ask the questions we all wanted to know the answers to, or rather those the script writers thought would keep us watching. Van Gogh is an easier one to ask awkward personal questions about than the Albigensians or for that matter St. Bernadette of Lourdes.
Also, as art has been relegated from BBC schedules in recent years, one on Van Gogh can supply the necessary blood, violence and other shock horror elements now de rigeur. At the end we had seen and heard a lot of Paxman, something of Murphy, but not a lot else. The descendants of the lady concerned connected to Van Gogh wisely stayed silent and detached from the whole business.
We finished up discovering that indeed the ear was lopped off by Van Gogh himself and were told who the lady was after a tour of the local brothel district. As it happened she was not a lady of the night, but an under age cleaner. The doctor in the case was given due coverage and there were a lot of pretty pictures of the local ladies in traditional costume.
There was also a bull fight in the Arena at Arles, a place I have visited, it had an interesting aroma, where we were fully informed about the significance of bull's ears in the ceremonial of the bull ring and what happened there. Stock footage was used to great effect even although in Van Gogh's time they did not kill the bulls, but hey there, who's worried about getting that wrong if we have some real blood?
A few shots of his art were shown and a desultory attempt made to explain his style and technique. The viewer was left with the impression that while he may have been a significant artist he would never have made it as a decorator. In any event it was said that he only sold one painting during his life.
This made me wonder. If he was very short of the readies are there paintings of which there is no record that he may have given to creditors and put in an attic somewhere, or could still be hanging on a wall unrecognised. One's that could not be got rid of because it was grannie's or looks nice with that wallpaper? Someone, somewhere might have a few million Euro's just behind the telly.
So there is our TV art of the 21st Century, a low level detective story where not much is detected and claims to change the course of Art History when in fact some interpretations might need minor adjustment.
Poor Van Gogh, he suffered a great deal, but at least he did not have to watch the programme.