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Eksteins’ ‘Solar Dance’ tells an unsettling tale of Van Gogh and the dawn of doubt

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Chuck Twardy

The Details

Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery and the Eclipse of Certainty
Three and a half stars
By Modris Eksteins, $28

Forget Van Gogh. Imagine he painted his wheat fields, lodgings and bandaged head, then one day took a gun out to a field and shot himself, and that his brother Theo’s death shortly afterward damned the tormented Dutchman to oblivion.

Would World War I have happened? Would Berlin have become first the world capital of deranged libertinism and then of evil? Yes, but Modris Eksteins could not have written Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery and the Eclipse of Certainty.

The University of Toronto emeritus history professor might nonetheless have turned out an excellent cultural history of Germany in the first half of the 20th century, with ample reference to both sunlight and human movement. And no doubt it would have touched on art dealer Otto Wacker, aka dancer Olindo Lovael, a creature so characteristic of 1920s Berlin that he might have invented Van Gogh.

But others had already done that. What Wacker invented instead was a trove of Van Gogh paintings whose Russian émigré owner insisted on anonymity. This meant that provenance—history of ownership—bowed to the “relatively recent practice” of authentication. Wacker had no trouble finding Van Gogh experts willing to bless his cache—and, in some cases, to buy and sell his fakes. He was tried, twice, and imprisoned as the decade, and then Weimar, came to an end.

Authenticity, as the book’s subtitle hints, is at the heart of Solar Dance. On one hand, the Dutch painter of menacing suns was the ideal hero of the Sonnenkind (sun children) of Weimar Germany, who craved the authentic. At the same time, though, some artists and philosophers insisted that all was counterfeit—but in a good way. Julius Meier-Graefe’s biography Vincent christened the ’20s, proudly proclaiming itself a work of art more than of history, and helping make Van Gogh “a formidable myth that assumed transformative power.”

Hmm … who else did that? “Hitler and National Socialism were as much a product of the culture of Weimar as were Walter Gropius’ architecture, Fritz Lang’s films and Marlene Dietrich’s legs,” Eksteins later asserts. He’s right, in a way, but Van Gogh’s role in all of this is questionable. Eksteins’ analysis is engaging, but too often he relies on tenuous correlations.

Still, his tale is unsettling, because he extends it into our age, which elevates the counterfeit and celebrates celebrity—all the while obscuring, perhaps enabling, pernicious politics.

On second thought, remember Van Gogh.

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