Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age

Image courtesy Random House of Canada

When I visit Holland these days, I tend to skip the queues and frenzy of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum (visited by almost 1.5 million in 2012) in favour of the Kröller-Müller Museum, about an hour away in Otterlo. Parking in the Veluwe near the porter’s bridge, I hop on a white bicycle and pedal the rest of the way through a wooded landscape to the large Sculpture Garden surrounding the building.

Many tourists don’t know about this place. I go there because usually I'll have ten minutes or so with a Van Gogh canvas to myself, without fanfare. At the Kröller-Müller, it’s just me and the artist, without distraction. The real deal. On my last visit, for instance, I sat on a bench across from Caféterras bij nacht  [Café Terrace at Night] without interruption. It was an enlightening moment I haven’t forgotten. 

On the other hand, would it alter my experience if I were told that I was looking at a replica, and not the actual work of art? Of course. If it somehow turned out that I was gazing at a forgery, would it increase my desire to see the authentic painting? Absolutely. And that’s what Solar Dance is about: the search for meaning and authenticity in art following the First World War, when Eksteins argues that truth in art was less evident.

Recently awarded the prestigious $40,000 British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, Solar Dance provides a fascinating account of how and why Van Gogh turned into an icon during the early 1900s, especially in Weimar Berlin. Divided into chapters titled after Van Gogh paintings, Eksteins uses the works as a means of looking at how Van Gogh’s art helped to bring about cultural, artistic and political movements between the two World Wars. 

The book opens with biographical background on the artist, before transporting the reader into the art world of the 1920s. The main story—which reads like a good suspense novel—revolves around dancer-turned-art-dealer Otto Wacker, who made a fortune from “lost” Van Goghs. He was eventually put on trial for selling forgeries, causing a scandal in 1932.

After the trial, the commercial value of Van Gogh’s paintings rose, boosting the artist’s fame posthumously—the forgeries prompting a desire for the authentic. According to Eksteins, Wacker’s ruse revealed eroding values and standards of an inter-war society: in an age of uncertainty and doubt, art became an investment and a commodity, and the boundaries between real and inauthentic art were blurred. 

Van Gogh went from being a degenerate madman whose paintings, when he died at age 37, were considered almost worthless. Today, he is one of the most famous artists in the world, a household name worshipped as part of the Van Gogh “cult.” How did this happen? I don’t necessarily agree with all of Eksteins’ provocative theories, but the book gave me a new perspective on cultural history and the Modern era, particularly in Germany during the Weimar Republic. More importantly, it prompted me to question the value of art, from one poor and brilliant painter’s canvas to a billion-dollar industry replicating Van Gogh’s work on potholders, mugs, magnets, lightswitch plates, iPad covers, t-shirts and paraphernalia galore.

Solar Dance doesn’t exactly view the ­­art world in a pleasant light. Mostly it made me want to get back to that real experience at the Kröller-Müller. In the meantime, until I can return to Holland, all I need to do is type “Van Gogh” into Google to generate about 71,600,000 search results, which will provide me with plenty of context. Or I can head over to the NGC galleries and have Iris to myself, if only for a minute.

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