How Van Gogh went from being an abject failure to a hero

In a new book, historian Modris Eksteins writes our admiration for Van Gogh says more about us than him

The real Van Gogh

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Vincent Van Gogh, who sold but a single painting in his time, died penniless in 1890, by his own hand or—in a theory proposed by his latest biographers—by a combination of accident, sheer bad luck and mulish self-denial that seems more emblematic of his emotionally tumultuous life than suicide. A century later, after decades of ever-increasing popular adulation, Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million, the most any painting has ever fetched in the 20th century. It’s true neither fact says anything about Van Gogh as an artist or as a human being, but both speak volumes about us, according to the acclaimed Canadian cultural historian Modris Eksteins.

“We choose our heroes out of our deepest concerns,” Eksteins says during an interview about his new book, Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. In it, Eksteins traces Van Gogh’s 20th-century arc from abject failure to “demonic saint and hero,” while ironically contrasting that transformation with the story of Otto Wacker, one of the artist’s most prolific forgers. Van Gogh, a lonely misfit in his own era, struggled against the dominant Victorian values of sublimation, duty and structure. But by the end of the Great War, Eksteins argues, the whole Western world had caught up with the painter in its rejection of the old order, now lying in ruins. Van Gogh was seen, as he is now, as someone who saw through veils of hypocrisy and lies into the essential truth of the human experience, a kind of icon of authenticity: “Van Gogh is ours, and we are Van Gogh,” concludes Eksteins.

Twenty-three years ago, Eksteins wrote the book on that seismic change in Western culture, finding its origins as much in the violent currents—emotional, spiritual and aesthetic—running beneath the surface of pre-war European society as in the actual violence of the war. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age took its title from Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet The Rite of Spring. Through its defiantly dissonant music, radically twisted dance steps and shocking storyline featuring human sacrifice, Diaghilev’s modernist classic famously provoked a riot at its 1913 Paris premiere.

Everything about the ballet and its reception was pregnant with symbolism for Eksteins. All the European nations at first welcomed conflict with raptures of joy. That very much included poets, painters and intellectuals who rushed to enlist, enthralled with the prospect of genuine experience replacing bourgeois routine. (So many, in fact, that the 28th battalion of the British army’s London Regiment was called the Artists Rifles.) But no country welcomed the war more than Germany, the most modern and the most militaristic nation on the continent. And afterwards, when the cost was reckoned—nine million dead on all sides and millions more maimed or disfigured—nowhere was the old order more thoroughly discredited than there. Two related strands grew out of modernism’s postwar German efflorescence, according to Eksteins, one making Weimar Berlin the most libertine and avant-garde capital in Europe, and another, darker one that led to Nazism.

Rites of Spring’s startlingly original point of view sparked a reaction just as loud, if not as violent, as Diaghilev’s ballet itself. Hailed as “ingenious and maddening” by fans and detractors alike at its 1989 publication, Rites has never ceased provoking discussion. Called one of the 100 most important Canadian books ever written in 2005 by the Literary Review of Canada, it rapidly became a staple of university history courses (“sales spike every September and January,” Eksteins notes), and turned the historian, now 69 and retired from the University of Toronto, into a star academic.

He’s never been a prolific writer, he concedes, although not without slyly adding that “a book a decade is not so bad—few of us are Niall Ferguson [author of a dozen fat histories in as many years], who seems able to write twice as fast as I can read.” In truth, Eksteins says, “historians are lucky if we have one grand idea in our professional lives. Rites of Spring was the book my training, my background, my whole life meant me to write.” Born in 1943, a child of Europe’s 20th-century convulsions, Eksteins washed up on Canadian shores as the son of displaced Latvians, attended Toronto’s elite Upper Canada College on a scholarship and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His interest in those violent upheavals is not just professional, but personal.

Solar Dance is merely a footnote to the grand concept embodied in the older one, Eksteins says, a small idea prompted by a long-ago sabbatical spent in Van Gogh territory, around Arles in southern France, and the realization that the artist’s early champions—the men and women who first resurrected his reputation—were overwhelmingly German. But all modesty aside, Solar Dance vividly captures the large within the small. Van Gogh, or more precisely the cult and myth of Van Gogh, is central to our concept—so well-established we have forgotten how new it is—of the artist as tortured outsider and of art as the quintessential medium of protest and anger. And the virtually unknown Otto Wacker also turns out, in Eksteins’s hands, to be a harbinger of our era of ceaseless copying and remixing, and our own crisis of authenticity.

Fuelled by German interest—Helene Muller, daughter of a shipping magnate, bought 28 Van Goghs in 1912 alone—the artist’s star was already rising before the war. Afterwards, however, appreciation turned to adulation, sometimes hysteria-tinged, and focused as much on the suffering as on the art. In the years before the Nazis finally decided to condemn rather than celebrate modern art, Joseph Goebbels was a devoted fan. Hitler’s future propaganda minister wrote that “Van Gogh’s life tells us more than his work.” Novels, plays and biographies in the 1920s all celebrated the tormented Dutchman as the one true artist.

The stage, then, was set for Wacker. He was a professional dancer in an era of dance fever, as was Leni Riefenstahl, before a knee injury sent her into film. (“You can see the dance influence in all those march-bys in Triumph of the Will,” says Eksteins.) But when rapidly depreciating currency dried up the 1920s German art market, Wacker—the son and brother of hack painters—suddenly produced a stash of Van Goghs, 33 in all, that he claimed came from an anonymous Russian who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. But lack of provenance was no problem in dealing with an artist who had moved around constantly, maintained no records, signed some works and not others, and made multiple paintings of the same subjects.

Instead, Wacker turned to a relatively new practice, authentication by experts. In the disintegrating economy of Weimar Germany, all of Van Gogh’s greatest champions happily took their modest fees and signed off on Wacker’s stash. After more disinterested observers raised doubts, those same experts were forced to fight back. Most claimed their certification was a matter of intuition, not pedantic scholarship—they could feel the artist’s presence. But by the time Wacker came to trial in 1932, as the legitimacy of the entire republican structure was crumbling before the Nazis, some had changed their minds two and even three times. Despite widespread sympathy for Wacker’s defence that he had relied on the word of authorities, he received a one-year sentence for forgery. But the reputation of his experts and the very notions of authority and authenticity took, in public-opinion terms, far harder body blows.

It’s a story of an evocative moment along the 20th century’s ideology-ravaged road “from modernism to postmodernism to the present,” Eksteins says. The real break with the past came after the Great War; after that “I see more continuities than breaks. Modernism was all about de-defining, deconstruction, breaking down old forms—what was left after that but to celebrate the experience, violent as often as not. Postmodernism does that too, just without enthusiasm and with a sardonic wink at the futility of it all.”

Now we have arrived at the inevitable end of the road, the Age of Doubt, Eksteins thinks, when we’re no longer sure about anything, including the authenticity of our own experiences. (A good thing, too, in his opinion: “There’s nothing more deadly than certainty.”) It’s hard, the historian argues, after the millions of victims piled up by the 20th century’s murderous ideologies, to imagine some new belief system taking root in the West. “I think doubt has become permanent. There’s no escape from the story of our time: Dubito, ergo sum.”

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