A German artist has found a way to use 3D technology and DNA from relatives of the 19th century painter to recreate a working model of Vincent Van Gogh’s lost ear. The artist’s self-portrait has perpetuated the legend–as well as the mystery–of his affliction and his genius. It was Van Gogh’s mystique that has promoted a modern tale of bioengineering that’s much less macabre than the stuff of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
“Guard this object carefully.” These are the fabled words uttered by revered and eccentric Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh when he cut off his own earlobe, handing it to a barmaid. Van Gogh had a history of mental illness and emotional distress, conditions which presumably led him to self-mutilate himself so famously. The young man handed his severed appendage over to a brothel in December 23, 1888 after a heated row with his close friend and fellow painter, Paul Gauguin, and the rest is history. (Well, disputed history: German historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans claim in their book Pact of Silence or Pakt des Schweigens that Gauguin really lobbed off the offending ear in that argument, and that the truth was never revealed so as to keep Gauguin out of trouble with the law. To each his own. Either way one slices it, Van Gogh was down an ear that Yule holiday.)
Now, over 125 years later, Van Gogh’s aborted ear has been revived, recreated thanks to the modern marvel of 3D bioprinting technology. Combining genetic material from Lieuwe Van Gogh’s (Vincent’s brother Theo’s great-great grandson) and the techniques used in 3D printing technology, German artist Diemut Strebe has created the replicated ear for a display at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. This is no wax cast or foam likeness; this is, in essence, Vincent Van Gogh’s ear in the flesh on display thanks to 3D technology.
The original design of the replica proposed the use of biological samples from Vincent Van Gogh himself, extracted from an envelope the painter was believed to have licked well over a century ago. This source, however, proved unreliable, leaving Strebe in want of genetic material.
Thanks to Liewe Van Gogh, whose cells were used as fundament for this precisely bioprinted likeness, Van Gogh’s ear is neither forgotten nor entirely gone any longer. Approximately one-sixteenth of Vincent’s genes were shared with his distant descendant, and used–along with likenesses of the artist’s ear as found in paintings and drawings–to create an actual, living, accurately sized and shaped human organ. This ear was printed and grown at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
This appendage is alive in a very real sense. The cells are animate, and rely on a nutrient solution to provide the same supplements that the human body requires to remain extant. Provided that the ear and its cellular structure remain uncompromised, this mute sensory protuberance may just “live” for years on end. Should the ear survive, it will be joined by a future installment to the exhibit. Little is known about this anticipated addition, save for the fact that a female relative’s mitochondrial DNA (on the mother’s side) is slated to provide this new link to Van Gogh’s genes.
And that’s not all. The 3D technology that created the lobe, in addition to holding genetic integrity, is functional in a sense as well. Visitors to Strebe’s exhibit, Sugababe, can actually speak to Van Gogh’s listening ear. Using a microphone, patrons can address Van Gogh; these sounds are processed via software and transmitted to the ear via simulated nerve impulses. While there is no way that the artist himself can actually hear (not, at least, until a genetically sound brain is printed to combine forces with the lone ear), the artist Strebe gave these nerve impulses the effect of a audible crackling, static sound.
Van Gogh’s ear will be on display in Germany through July 6. Following this, the ear is reported to tour to an as-of-yet undisclosed gallery in New York in 2015. For more information about this exhibit, as well as the 3D technology responsible for the recreation of Van Gogh’s ear, visit the site for Diemut Strebe’s Sugababe installation.
By Mariah Beckman