Vincent van Gogh is perhaps equally famous for his sunflowers and his act of self-mutilation. Apart from his paintings, when people think of the artist, they also think of his ear – or lack of it.
But references to Van Gogh’s missing ear, and mental health, in souvenirs on sale at the Courtauld Gallery in London have attracted criticism.
Currently displaying a major exhibition of his work, including his infamous self-portrait with bandaged ear, some of the Courtauld’s products – such as a £6 eraser in the shape of an ear – have been branded insensitive.
The range to celebrate Van Gogh features sunflowers aplenty, on socks, scarfs, and in packs of seeds, as well as jigsaw, postcard and print mementoes of his best-known self-portraits. But critics have attacked gift shop items highlighting the severe mental health crisis Van Gogh experienced, and which culminated in his suicide.
By cutting off his left ear, after a row with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, the Dutch painter became a legendary “tortured artist”.
Apart from the eraser ear, visitors can buy a £5 bar of soap, marketed as ideal for “the tortured artist who enjoys fluffy bubbles”. An “emotional first aid kit”, priced at £16, is described as “a box of wise emergency advice for 20 key psychological situations”.
Some have been left distinctly unimpressed at the attempt at humour.
Charles Thomson, a co-founder of the Stuckist group of artists, said: “Suicide is not a joke and mental illness is not a joke.”
“This is shallow, nasty and insensitive,” he told the Mail on Sunday. “What next? Van Gogh’s suicide pistol?”
Art critic David Lee, the editor of The Jackdaw magazine, told the newspaper: “I can’t believe this isn’t someone in marketing’s attempt at tasteless humour in the pub after work.”
“Would they, for example, be prepared to sell pencils in the shape of a false leg at a Frida Kahlo exhibition?” he added, referring to the Mexican artist who lost a leg to gangrene.
Van Gogh, a heavy drinker, is thought to have been experiencing psychosis when he cut off his ear in 1888 while living in France, after a row with Gauguin. Thought to have had either bipolar disorder or temporal lobe epilepsy, he spent more than a year at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Remy, and in 1890, aged 37, shot himself, dying two days later.
The Courtauld has been approached for comment.