Art can be beautiful. Art can inspire. And sometimes art can be really weird. Science, history, and art collided when contemporary Italian artist Diemut Strebe (DIY-maht STREE-bee) created one of the strangest sculptures in history. Using today’s cutting-edge technology, she created a living model of the ear of one of history’s most famous artists, Vincent Van Gogh.
AN ARTIST’S STRUGGLES
Born in the Netherlands in 1853, Van Gogh became one of the founders of Post-Impressionism, using vibrant colors and painting with thick, expressive brushstrokes. Though he died at the young age of 37 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, the prolific artist created approximately 900 paintings and 1,100 sketches, including the famous The Starry Night.
In the last few years of his life, Van Gogh painted constantly, but he also suffered from illness. Based on the limited evidence available today, some medical experts believe that he suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, bipolar disorder, depression, or another condition that caused hallucinations and psychological disorders. After an argument with his close friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh sliced off part of his own left ear. He later painted Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear, above left.
VAN GOGH’S EAR GETS ANOTHER CHANCE
The story of Van Gogh’s ear always fascinated Strebe. “I thought it would be interesting to regrow Van Gogh’s ear,” she says. Strebe and a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University used cartilage cells donated by Van Gogh’s living great-great nephew, Lieuwe Van Gogh, to grow the cells needed to make a copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s ear. One sixteenth of Lieuwe Van Gogh’s DNA is the same as that of Vincent Van Gogh.
The team created a 3-D-printed mold in the shape of Van Gogh’s ear, based on a photograph of the artist. Strebe filled the mold with an organic substance and added the cartilage cells from Lieuwe. Then the cells grew into the replica ear.
“What we did is create a machine to mimic the body,” Strebe explains. “The whole system in which the ear lives, you could say, is the skin. The nutrition comes from the plasma. We have a pump, which is the heart, and an oxygen exchange like a lung.” The ear is in a solution of nutrients that could keep it alive for many years.
Strebe also included a microphone into which viewers can speak to the ear. But the only response they will hear is crackling white noise representing Van Gogh’s absence.