In search of the traces: Van Gogh and archival research

In search of the traces: Van Gogh and archival research

There is now an established literature which sets out to describe the mechanics and ‘noise’ of archival research by explaining the different activities, twists and turns that are involved. Well-known contributions are those by Carolyn Steadman and Arlette Farge, while The Archive Project is a similar venture related to the WWW project, written with a number of colleagues using our respective researches. Bernadette Murphy’s (2016) Van Gogh’s Ear is an enthralling, well-written and informative addition to the genre which can be recommended to every beginning and indeed every experienced archival researcher too.

This is an account of how Murphy – not an academic, long-term resident in the Arles area in southern France, knowledgeable about local institutions, competent in French, curious about Van Gogh, determined to find out as much as she could – went about trying to solve the mystery of Van Gogh’s ear. Exactly what did he cut off? Why did he do it? Why was Paul Gauguin, at the time sharing a house with Van Gogh, arrested? Why did Van Gogh take whatever was sliced off to a local brothel and present it to a woman there? Did these things connect with changes in his painting while he was living in Arles? What happened afterwards? At each stage of her enquiry, confronting one puzzle led Murphy to others, with few of them reaching full solution but all of them yielding further information to add to the emerging picture. Also and importantly, she does not lose sight of Van Gogh as a working artist and how his painting relates to all of this.

Murphy’s book shows the need for curiosity, tenacity, thinking laterally, being prepared to look outside as well as inside of archival locations and sources, following up every byeway as well as highway. It also conveys the excitement, the slightly obsessional feeling, the sense of discovery, and that extraordinary excitement that comes when finding things that significantly add to what the researcher knows. The result is that she has made a distinctive and original contribution and produced genuinely new knowledge about Van Gogh, Arles and his art, his breakdown and his final period. In doing so, she has also written an excellent account of the excitement and frustration and heady pleasures of archival research. It’s a gripping read. From now on, this will be the book I’ll recommend to anyone who wants to know why and how to do archival research and to do it with verve as well as exemplary thoroughness.

Arlette Farge (2013 [1997]) The Allure of the Archive New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Niamh Moore, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley and Maria Tamboukou (2016) The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences London: Routledge. https://sites.google.com/site/thebookarchiveproject/

Bernadette Murphy (2016) Van Gogh’s Ear London: Vintage.

Liz Stanley (2016) “Archival methodology inside the blackbox: noise in the archive!” Chapter 2 in Niamh Moore, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley and Maria Tamboukou (2016) The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences London: Routledge.

Carolyn Steadman Dust Manchester: Manchester University Press.

 

Last updated:  19 April 2018


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