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‘Insensitive’ Van Gogh souvenirs removed from sale amid backlash

Hannah Ryan, CNN

A London art gallery has removed some souvenirs relating to Vincent Van Gogh from its gift shop after they were branded insensitive and considered to be making light of the topic of mental health.

The Courtauld Gallery, which can be found in Somerset House in the English capital, is holding its “Van Gogh. Self-portraits” exhibition until May.

It has come under fire in recent days for some of the items found on sale in its in-person and online store, including an eraser in the shape of an ear — an apparent reference to the fact that the Dutch painter cut his left ear off. He later spent a year at the Saint-Paul de Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy in France.

Van Gogh suffered with mental health issues throughout his life and in 1890, at the age of 37, he shot himself.

On Monday, the gallery sent a statement to CNN which acknowledged the “concerns raised about a small number of items available in The Courtauld Gallery’s shop and online store.”

“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 statement read.

“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.”

The gallery did not confirm exactly which items had been removed from sale, but the eraser is not available to purchase via its online shop.

According to the Mail on Sunday, one of the gifts also sold at the exhibition was a £5 ($7) bar of soap touted as ideal for “the tortured artist who enjoys fluffy bubbles.”

A £16 ($22) “emotional first aid kit” for “20 key psychological situations” is still on sale.

The items sparked a backlash, particularly in regards to the “insensitive” mental health issues associated with the products.

‘Treated as a joke’

Charles Thomson, a co-founder of the Stuckist art movement, told CNN Tuesday: “This case feels like a small but clear example of the cynicism and commercialism that has affected the modern art landscape, as mental health and mental illness are treated as a joke — which they aren’t — or as a novelty.”

He said that the sale of “insensitive” gifts is reflective of a current attitude in artistic circles in which “people want to be clever and trendy at the expense of having dignity in art.”

Self-described as a “radical art movement,” the Stuckism art movement was founded in 1999 and is dedicated to “contemporary figurative painting with ideas.”

Thomson added that the incident “says a lot” about society’s current attitude towards mental illness and mental health afflictions, adding: “We still don’t take it especially seriously.”

Art critic David Lee is the editor of The Jackdaw magazine, a self-proclaimed critical art magazine. He told the Mail on Sunday: “I can’t believe that this isn’t someone in marketing’s attempt at tasteless humor in the pub after work.”

He referred to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and questioned whether the gallery would consider it appropriate to produce souvenirs relating to the loss of her leg due to a gangrene infection.

“This is, after all, the Courtauld Institute, supposedly the center of Art History in the UK if not Western Europe. Would they, for example, be prepared to sell pencils in the shape of a false leg at a Frida Kahlo exhibition?”

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