Van Gogh and Weimar Democracy


Over at the National Post, I have a review of Modris Eksteins’ Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, which makes a provocative but not wholly convincing case linking the Van Gogh cult with the failure of Weimar democrcacy. You can read the review here.

An excerpt:

Although Eckstein’s encyclopedic cultural knowledge allows him to roam through many continents and decades, Solar Dance is anchored by the story of Otto Wacker, a shadowy art dealer who amazed collectors and curators of the Weimar Germany by bringing to the market a stockpile of previously unknown Van Goghs. Questioned about the provenance of his mysterious Van Gogh booty, Wacker spun out a colourful yarn about a Russian exile and an oath of secrecy.

A prototypical young man from the provinces in the tradition of Julien Sorel or Jay Gatsby, Wacker was a slippery character with no official background in art and a checkered history as a dancer and habitant of Berlin’s sexual and social underworld. An offspring of a resourceful working-class family that made its money on the outskirts of polite society, Wacker managed through sheer brazen guile to get some of the world’s top Van Gogh experts to certify to the authenticity of his collection. Even when the grand poohbahs of the gallery scene started questioning how so many Van Goghs could suddenly have appeared out of nowhere, Wacker still had his defenders even as he stood trial for his alleged fraud.

The story of Wacker’s unlikely rise and equally quick unravelling makes for compulsive reading, made especially gripping by Eksteins’ sure-handed unfolding of the narrative. A crackerjack archival researcher, Eckstein brings to life not just Wacker but the world that created him and allowed him to briefly thrive. It’s that larger world of early-20th-century European culture, wracked as it was by war and the rise of totalitarianism, that is Eksteins’ real concern. For him, both the lionization of Van Gogh and the forgeries that flourished in the art market are symptomatic of a larger cultural sickness, one that has serious implications for both the past and present.

2 thoughts on “Van Gogh and Weimar Democracy

  1. A ha! The tag at the end of the article leaves a clue as to the trickle of posts on this blog. Congrats!

    A cultural conservative in the European tradition, Eksteins takes a dim view of modern art, seeing it as emblematic of disorder, madness, despair, an idolatry that replaces religion with the cult of the artist, sensationalism and the loss of faith in older and more humane traditions.

    Apologies if I’m conflating two separate streams of thoughts, but that line sums up why I’ve started to take a dim view of cultural conservatives like Roger Kimball et al in North America. Flogging Jackson Pollock or some performance artist who received a $2k grant for fecal finger-painting gets kind of old, especially when the field of commercial illustration or no-brow art supplies plenty of material that a self-proclaimed cultural conservative could chew on: how Mara McAfee and Phil Hale borrow and diverge from Norman Rockwell, for example.

    Ever since I was six and read The Great Brain series of novels, I’ve been fascinated by forgery and counterfeits. Loved the review!

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