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BY Andrew Goldstein on January 4, 2010
A British art historian claims Vincent van Gogh's 1889 painting "Still Life: Drawing Board with Onions" contains the answer to why the artist cut off his ear. ; Via

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What has the new year brought so far? A terrorist attack against a Danish artist, the tallest building in the world in Dubai, and a new theory about van Gogh's ear. Read on for ArtWeLove’s news digest, now also available in email form—bringing a comprehensive roundup of the week’s art developments to your digital doorstep. If you aren’t signed up, click here. As always, we welcome your feedback at

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2010! The numbers seem so round and inviting, exuding the promise of a decade free from the economic idiocies and political nightmares of the previous one. Let's hope so. But it's worth noting amid the tabula-rasa euphoria of the new year that the decade’s first piece of art news was a chilling New Year’s Day terrorist attack against Kurt Westergaard, the 74-year-old Danish cartoonist whose 2005 caricature of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban set off deadly riots in the Muslim world. Celebrating the holiday with his 5-year-old granddaughter, Westergaard and the girl were forced to take refuge in a specially fortified bathroom in his home while the attacker tried to break in with an axe, shouting “Blood!” Apparently things don't change with a simple rolling forward of the calendar--it's going to take some hard work too.


Some of the most interesting stories of the new year involve macabre minings of the past. In Italy, a troupe of scientists searching the town of Porto Ercole for the remains of Caravaggio have claimed success. Experts hope the bones will shed new light on the mysterious circumstances of the artist’s death, which has been attributed to everything from an assassination plot to malaria. Housed in an ossuary, the remains will be displayed in Rome’s Villa Borghese gallery before heading to a new burial site. Perhaps encouraged by the finding, another group of anthropologists have announced plans to exhume the body of Leonardo da Vinci from a castle in Amboise, France. They say they’re hoping to conduct DNA analysis to confirm the identity of the remains, but how cool would it be if these scientists were really building an Old Master version of Jurassic Park?

Another, more unsettling instance of historical digging came to light in the publication of recent research revealing that several members of the Bauhaus school, long viewed as a largely passive casualty of the Third Reich, were actually willing collaborators. According to Bauhaus expert Nicholas Fox Weber, a former student at the influential art and architecture school, Franz Ehrlich, designed many of the buildings and residences at Buchenwald (first as a prisoner, then as a free employee) and that another, Fritz Ertl, designed the gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz. Finally, British art historian Martin Gayford says he has solved the mystery of why Vincent van Gogh lopped off his ear. Through close analysis of an envelope depicted in Still Life: Drawing Board with Onions, a 1889 painting the artist made at the time of the incident, Gayford has posited that the trigger for van Gogh’s legendary self-mutilation was a letter from his brother Theo announcing that he planned to get married—leading the artist to wrongly believe he would lose his sole supporter and closest confidant.


In more up-to-date news, the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg has fallen in line with the rising global interest in contemporary art by declaring that it will build a 650,000-square-foot expansion to show temporary exhibitions of cutting-edge work alongside 20th century art. Due to open in 2014, the project is the latest instance of a world-class universal museum adding contemporary programming to its mission; the last to do so was the Louvre. Meanwhile, the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, a museum known for showing Modern art, has announced it will close permanently before the end of the month due to conflicts with the French government, which controls the building where it is housed. The decision entails the loss of 100 museum jobs. Elsewhere in France, the first major art theft of the decade occurred in Draguignan, where nearly 30 paintings by artists including Picasso and Rousseau—valued together at about $1.4 million—were stolen from a private residence. Then, in Marseille, a Degas was also stolen from the port city’s Cantini Museum after being unscrewed from a wall. Police initially arrested the night watchman, believing it to be an inside job, but he has since been released.


In architectural news, the cash-strapped emirate of Dubai has cut the ribbon on the tallest building in the world, a $1 billion skyscraper designed by Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Modeled in part on a never-executed plan by Frank Lloyd Wright, the building—erected by an army of poorly paid immigrant workers—features two swimming pools, the world’s highest mosque (on the 158th floor), a nightclub, and a hotel designed by Georgio Armani. The 2,600-foot tower is so tall that you can watch the sunset on the ground floor, then take the elevator to the top and watch it again. Another grand, some-would-says-hubristic architectural project—a staple of the aughts—was unveiled half-finished in Basel, Switzerland. Commissioned by drug-maker Novartis as a private corporate campus, the undertaking includes buildings by Frank Gehry, Rafael Moneo, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, among others, and is scheduled to open in 2014. Last week a new Gehry project was also announced in New York: a $60 million performing arts complex in Times Square for the Signature Theater Company.


In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts has picked Jen Mergel, a 33-year-old curator at the ICA Boston, to head its contemporary art programming. The move is part of the institution’s attempt, a la the Hermitage, to begin emphasizing newer work; a $500 million expansion, scheduled to open in 2011, will quadruple the space devoted to contemporary art. Then, in New York, the Richard Avedon Foundation has named Paul Roth, previously senior photography and media curator at the Corcoran in D.C., as its new executive director. In London, meanwhile, a prizewinning student at the Edinburgh College of Art, Kevin Harman, was arrested for his latest project—smashing a length of pipe through the window of Edinburgh’s Collective Gallery. The venue, which was not consulted on the artwork, drew criticism from a number of the city’s artists for pressing charges against Harman. (Watch a video of the act here.)

Finally, artist David Levine, a Brooklyn native who spent his long career afflicting the comfortable with acid-etched literary and political caricatures for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and other publications, passed away at 83. Famous for his expertly draughted compositions of political figures from Lyndon Johnson (depicted showing off a surgical scar in the shape of Vietnam) to Henry Kissinger (portrayed literally and lasciviously screwing the world), Levine has been called the greatest political cartoonist of the second half of the 20th century, the heir of Thomas Nast and Daumier. See a gallery of his work here.

Related Articles:

"Cartoonist in Denmark Calls Attack ‘Really Close’" [via the New York Times]

"Caravaggio's remains are retrieved by scientists" [via the BBC]


"Deadly Style: Bauhaus’s Nazi Connection" [via the New York Times]

"Why Van Gogh cut his ear: new clue" [via the Art Newspaper]


"Dispute Will Shut Luxembourg Museum" [via the New York Times]

"Picasso, Rousseau paintings stolen in France" [via the Agence France-Presse]

"Watchman arrested in France over stolen painting" [via the Agence France-Presse]

"Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building, set to open" [via the Guardian]

"Many Hands, One Vision" [via the New York Times]

"Gehry to Design New York Performing Arts Complex" [via]

"Mergel brings contemporary vision to MFA from ICA" [via the Boston Globe]

"Corcoran Curator Takes New York" [via NBC Washington]

"Glass act: student fined for smashing gallery window and calling it art" [via the Guardian]

"Starting With Lines, but Ending With Truth" [via the New York Times]

From the Article: Artists

Pablo Picasso
Edgar Degas
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Gehry