The Courtauld Gallery in London has removed two items from its gift shop and online retail platform relating to the artist Vincent Van Gogh after some arts commentators claimed that the products belittled mental health issues. The items—an eraser in the shape of a ear costing £6 and a £5 bar of soap described as “ideal for the tortured artist who enjoys fluffy bubbles”—first went on sale on 3 February but have now been withdrawn. The rubber ear and the soap, which can still be bought on other websites, accompany the current critically acclaimed exhibition Van Gogh Self-Portraits (until 8 May).
The gallery says in a statement: “The Courtauld takes mental health extremely seriously. It was never The Courtauld’s intention to present an insensitive or dismissive attitude to this important subject by stocking these items. The items in question form a small fraction of those made available as part of the exhibition collection. In light of these concerns, the items will no longer be sold in our stores.”
David Lee, the editor of the Jackdaw magazine, told the Mail on Sunday newspaper: “Would they [Courtauld] be prepared to sell pencils in the shape of a false leg at a Frida Kahlo exhibition?", referring to the late Mexican artist’s amputation of the right leg below the knee due to a gangrene infection.
Some commentators responded wryly however to the product withdrawal. The arts writer Alex O’Connell says in the Times: “I have been devising more edgy merchandise to sell in the shop of my favourite gallery… First up: how about a Goya-inspired hydraulic robotic arm? The artist was thought to be syphilitic and as well as suffering neurological problems he experienced lack of movement on his right side, including paralysis in his arm and hand.”
Van Gogh is thought to have severed his left ear in December 1888, documenting the traumatic event in the painting Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), which is included in the Courtauld’s self-portraits show. “This self-mutilation was a desperate act committed a few weeks earlier, following a heated argument with his fellow painter Paul Gauguin who had come to stay with him in Arles, in the south of France,” the Courtauld website says. In 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest in a field near Auvers outside Paris and died two days later with his brother Theo at his bedside.