Van Gogh. Few other names carry so much cultural weight. Simply mentioning the Dutch painter calls forth myriad associations: the ubiquity of Sunflowers and Starry Night; the mystery of the severed ear; madness; depression; his addiction to absinthe.
How do we account for the uncanny staying power of the troubled soul who sold only one work in his lifetime yet posthumously became the most celebrated – not to mention most expensive and most reproduced – artist of the modern age? Modris Eksteins suggests that “our fascination with van Gogh tells us a good deal about ourselves.” But he goes much further. For the University of Toronto emeritus historian, the painter represents an authenticity that has disappeared from the modern world.
Solar Dance follows the basic model Eksteins employed in his acclaimed 2000 Trillium Book Award winner, Rites of Spring. Just as he used Stravinsky’s controversial ballet to enter into a meditation on modernity in early 20th-century Germany, he subjects van Gogh’s legacy to an exploration of truth, celebrity, and “mounting existential crisis” in interwar Germany. Eksteins’ central thesis is that van Gogh’s work fed public hunger for the transcendental in an increasingly rational time, but also stoked its penchant for commodification, appropriation, and falsification.
This is a compelling proposition. Van Gogh’s rebellious work is credited as the foundation for Expressionism, a movement that shattered the rigid structures of the art world in a “spiritual rebellion against science, materialism, and law.” When Germany gave birth to a movement obsessed with art, sexual liberation, and the tangible here and now following its defeat in the First World War, the German elite appropriated van Gogh as a national icon, and the price of the artist’s work soared.
It is in this context that Eksteins introduces us to Otto Wacker, a dandy and dancer turned art dealer, who bursts onto the Berlin art scene with a cache of supposed van Goghs. As accusations fly that the paintings are forgeries, Wacker goes on trial. In front of a nascent mass media, art experts give clashing and often unfounded testimony, respected dealers are found to have knowingly sold dubious paintings, and modern tools of scientific inquiry are deployed with inconclusive results. What is at stake, Eksteins argues, is not only the authenticity of the paintings themselves, but the very notion of truth.
Eksteins brings the exuberance and precariousness of the age, and of Berlin itself, to life with detail, wit, and a marvellously researched cast of characters. Coupled with the intriguing treatment of van Gogh as an amalgam of artist and celebrity, the component parts of which cannot be treated separately, this makes for fascinating reading. Art becomes a floating signifier onto which can be grafted social, personal, and political projects guided by anything from spiritual need to capitalist self-interest. While Eksteins does fail to note that van Gogh himself copied other artists’ work (his L’Arlésienne of 1890 is painted off a Gauguin drawing of the same title from two years earlier), a slightly compromising omission, overall Solar Dance is a strong case study in art history.
Unfortunately, Eksteins stretches himself to include the rise of Hitler and to comment on the nature of modernity itself, which he accuses of being over-rationalized, unoriginal, and false. This is a problematic turn. First, comparison to Rites of Spring is inevitable, with the equally inevitable conclusion that Eksteins is making the same argument here using a similar device. Second, Eksteins’ notion of modernity, which seems to lean heavily on the work of the Weimar-trained Frankfurt School philosophers, is not altogether convincing. This is especially true when he makes sweeping statements such as, for instance, accusing all modern art, from the Theatre of the Absurd through John Cage’s silent piano performances, of being unoriginal echoes of Weimar art.
Eksteins needs his association of modernity with the figure of Otto Wacker to hold. But what if, instead of being the embodiment of modernity, Wacker was simply a timeless huckster? Eksteins has no contingency plan for such an interpretation. Moreover, his historical inquiry is too narrow. Neither Nazism nor other aspects of modernity incubated in a German vacuum. The Nazi expansionary myth of Lebensraum was linked to broader European colonial trends, and more centrally to Eksteins’ argument, Hitler’s politics and aesthetics were heavily influenced by Mussolini’s fascism and Italian futurist art.
Finally, given the parallels between Eksteins’ argument and contemporary challenges facing liberal democracies, it is both surprising and disappointing that he does not arrive at the present day until the last chapter. And here, instead of unfolding any one of a number of threads so tantalizingly hinted at throughout the book, Eksteins contents himself with a few pointed but relatively superficial observations.