Van Gogh, Wacker, and the history of the 20th century
What explains the continuing popularity of Vincent Van Gogh?
February 13, 2012
VANCOUVER, BC, Feb. 13, 2012/ Troy Media/ – “Van Gogh was the most popular artist of all time.” So begins Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, the latest book by Modris Eksteins – a claim that he neither qualifies nor shades with irony. It is also a key contention on which he bases his book: Van Gogh and the legacy of his work as symbolic of the larger historical trends in Europe, then North America, after World War One.
Eksteins is a retired professor of History from the University of Toronto, yet this is not a conventional history book. Rather, it is a type of cultural record which takes an unusual angle. It aspires to be about “our own crisis” in which “art and entertainment have blurred, where information and disinformation have become hard to separate, where mundane reality and gleaming image often pretend to be the same.” Two figures take centre stage in all this: Vincent Van Gogh, acclaimed Dutch Impressionist, and Otto Wacker, a fraudulent art dealer notable chiefly for selling previously unseen “Van Gogh” paintings in 1920s Germany.
The trial of Otto Wacker
The main act is the trial of Otto Wacker, a working class boy from Dusseldorf, who invents himself first as a dancer, then as an art dealer. Making a small fortune in the process, he manages to get the forged paintings authenticated by “experts” before selling them to art collectors. The art market in Germany is booming, as spiralling inflation pushes nervous investors to seek safe vehicles for their cash. Impressionist art is popular, but Van Gogh’s work rapidly eclipses that of his French colleagues in value.
Why does Van Gogh become so popular in Germany at this time? In the economic and political upheaval of the years between World War I and II, Germany was constituted as the Weimar Republic. Reeling from the defeat of WWI and crippling reparations, Germans, like many other Europeans, lost faith in the institutions and ideals that had formerly been dominant – including religion. According to Eksteins, Van Gogh becomes a heroic symbol in Germany, as much for his life story as for his art. A type of Nietszchean superman, Van Gogh embodies the proud outcast who spurns the conventions of his society and creates something radically new in art.
For Eksteins, the spirit of the Weimar Republic prefigures the zeitgeist of the 20th century. The trial of Otto Wacker revealed profound uncertainty about the nature of authentic art and the authority of “experts” who professed the ability to distinguish the genuine article from forgery. Indeed, the outcome of the trial was less a condemnation of Wacker – though he was finally convicted – and more a judgement on the nature of the art market, driven by greed and celebrity. The scandal itself only increased the value of ostensibly genuine Van Gogh paintings.
Both Van Gogh and Otto Wacker are representatives of our times, says Eksteins.
One of modern art’s foremost critics, Arthur Danto, comments in his book, The Madonna of the Future,that one must ask of any work of art both what it is, and what it means. Much of the art of the 20th century differs from French Impressionism and other previous styles of painting in that the meaning may not be evident in the work of art itself. Van Gogh straddles the border between 19th century art, like that of the Impressionists, which mostly embodies the meaning in the art, and the more difficult art of the early 20th century, typified by the infamous urinal of Marcel Duchamps. This art was manifestly about something else, and required the viewer to construct or puzzle over the meaning.
This openness may explain the popularity of Vincent Van Gogh more than the details of his tragic life or alienated genius. While Eksteins certainly makes the case that Van Gogh became a heroic figure for the literati of the Weimar Republic, it is less certain that this explains his popularity for the broader public in Germany and North America who continue to flock to exhibitions of his work.
A crisis of authenticity
Still, the crisis of authenticity and art highlighted here has only intensified in the 21st century. While the art market in the 1920s was scandalised by Wacker’s reproductions of Van Gogh’s work, Damien Hirst, one of the most financially successful artists today, has no hesitation in admitting that he has teams of assistants churning out his works of “art.”
Solar Dance is packed with a sometimes bewildering array of personalities and details from the Weimar Republic. The trial of Otto Wacker is recounted in exact – even exhausting – detail. However, the most interesting parts of this book are those in which Eksteins looks up from the historical account and reflects on the legacy of the Weimar Republic, a culture in which “we have dispatched our gods and replaced them with celebrities . . . biography is far more interesting to us than history, and art, education, and entertainment have fused.”
Solar Dance fails to convincingly make the case that Vincent Van Gogh and Otto Wacker remain figures of symbolic significance. Eksteins relies more on description than analysis to persuade his readers. However, along the way, this unusual book conveys a vivid sense of the art and culture of Weimar Germany, and some surprising connections to our own.
Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, by Modris Eksteins. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. pp. 283.
Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University.
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