UTSC historian Modris Eksteins’ latest book takes on the popularity of Dutch post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh. Its focus is the bizarre 1932 fraud trial of Otto Wacker, dancer, art dealer, future Nazi Party member, and purveyor of forged van Gogh paintings. Eksteins, an expert on Weimar Germany, is best known for his passionate and wide-ranging exploration of the connections between avant-garde aesthetics and the chaos of World War One, The Rites of Spring (the title comes from Stravinsky’s radical 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring).
Solar Dance covers much of the same ground, but with a tighter focus and a much clearer narrative thread. Eksteins argues that van Gogh’s painting reflected a heady mixture of vitality and nihilism that not only matched Europe’s pre-war fears but also its post-1918 despair about the calamity that had just occurred. In the 1920s, van Gogh became one of the hottest commodities on the Berlin art scene, and skyrocketing demand made it easy for Wacker to peddle his counterfeits. The trial ended up making a mockery of the art market’s pretensions to certainty, but it had little effect of the popularity of van Gogh’s art. That rose, year by year, to the point that Eksteins claims he is the single most popular painter of all time. His mix of vitality and despair appeals as much today as it did in the darkest days of Weimar—we still haven’t overcome the fears unleashed by our first global industrial war.
If you want a comprehensive study of war, psychology, and Europe’s avant-garde, it’s worth going the distance with Rites of Spring, but Solar Dance represents a far more readable introduction to Ekstein’s ideas and to the way he uses art to illuminate the tragedies of European politics