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German artist creates replica of Van Gogh's severed ear using 3D printer

Oh, the wonders of a 3D printer. We’ve heard stories of them producing everything from fashion to food to aids for historical research, such as the recent spinal replica that helped the University of Leicester determine Richard III in fact had scoliosis. One German artist’s recent printing project, meanwhile, has incorporated science, history, and art.

The printed item? A replica of the ear legendary painter Vincent van Gogh infamously cut off himself, which is currently on display at The Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. What’s more, the ear was grown using real genetic material and is technically a living organ.

Artist Diemut Strebe was behind the project and created the ear with the DNA of Lieuwe van Gogh, the great-great-grandson of Vincent’s younger brother, Theo. Van Gogh and his famous ancestor reportedly share about 1/16th of the same genes, including the Y chromosome passed down through the male line. Getting him to agree to the idea was apparently a pretty easy sell, because Strebe says the modern van Gogh “loved the project right away.”

The ear was grown in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and is housed inside a case containing a “nourishing liquid,” meaning the ear could be preserved in its current state for years.

Strebe had hoped to use genetic material from van Gogh himself, but DNA taken off an envelope believed to house some of it turned out to be that of another person instead. SF Gate notes on Wednesday that Strebe is working with a female relative for future projects.

“I use science basically like a type of brush, like Vincent used paint," Strebe tells the Associated Press. The artist plans to bring the ear to New York for display sometime next year.

Though the exact timeline of events is not known precisely, Vincent van Gogh is believed to have cut off his left ear on December 23, 1888 after some sort of argument with friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. A Parisian newspaper reported the incident a few days later, writing that “an artist-painter from Holland” had taken the ear to a “house of ill repute” and told a prostitute to “take it, it will be useful.”

Van Gogh was eventually found unconscious in his home and later had no recollection of cutting his ear off, leading to the conclusion that he had an acute psychotic episode. In 2009, two German historians argued that it was actually Gauguin who sliced his ear with a sword during a fight and kept quiet by both painters.

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