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Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty

Overview

In Modris Eksteins's hands, the interlocking stories of Vincent van Gogh and art dealer Otto Wacker reveal the origins of the fundamental uncertainty that is the hallmark of the modern era. Through the lens of Wacker's sensational 1932 trial in Berlin for selling fake Van Goghs, Eksteins offers a unique narrative of Weimar Germany, the rise of Hitler, and the replacement of nineteenth-century certitude with twentieth-century doubt.

Berlin after the Great War was a magnet for art...

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Overview

In Modris Eksteins's hands, the interlocking stories of Vincent van Gogh and art dealer Otto Wacker reveal the origins of the fundamental uncertainty that is the hallmark of the modern era. Through the lens of Wacker's sensational 1932 trial in Berlin for selling fake Van Goghs, Eksteins offers a unique narrative of Weimar Germany, the rise of Hitler, and the replacement of nineteenth-century certitude with twentieth-century doubt.

Berlin after the Great War was a magnet for art and transgression. Among those it attracted was Otto Wacker, a young gay dancer turned art impresario. His sale of thirty-three forged Van Goghs and the ensuing scandal gave Van Gogh's work unprecedented commercial value. It also called into question a world of defined values and standards that had already begun to erode during the war. Van Gogh emerged posthumously as a hero who rejected organized religion and other suspect sources of authority in favor of art. Self-pitying Germans saw in his biography a series of triumphs-over defeat, poverty, and meaninglessness-that spoke to them directly. Eksteins shows how the collapsing Weimar Republic that made Van Gogh famous and gave Wacker an opportunity for reinvention propelled a third misfit into the spotlight. Taking advantage of the void left by a gutted belief system, Hitler gained power by fashioning myths of mastery.

Filled with characters who delight and frighten, Solar Dance merges cultural and political history to show how upheavals of the early twentieth century gave rise to a search for authenticity and purpose.

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Editorial Reviews

Globe and Mail

Nowadays, van Gogh is no longer even an authentic madman; he is, instead, a textbook case of cultural over-determination, strangled by his own success. Modris Eksteins's subtle and engaging new book offers an account of how this came to be, and in telling it, Eksteins bestows a great gift: new strangeness...Eksteins tells his story in a suitably looping and layered manner, with many darts and artful reverses, using a range of knowledge and allusion reminiscent of his 1989 masterpiece, Rites of Spring.
— Mark Kingwell

Quill & Quire

Eksteins brings the exuberance and precariousness of the age, and of Berlin itself, to life with detail, wit, and a marvelously researched cast of characters. Coupled with the intriguing treatment of van Gogh as an amalgam of artist and celebrity, the component parts of which cannot be treated separately, this makes for fascinating reading.
— Jan Dutkiewicz

Peter Fritzsche
In a grand, rich, and incisive exploration, Eksteins examines van Gogh and the world of appearance, illusion, and fraud opened up by one of the century's most famous counterfeit cases: a trove of fake van Goghs that Berlin impresario Otto Wacker released onto the art market in the late 1920s. Eksteins introduces readers to a fascinating array of movers and shakers, from Van Gogh and Gauguin to the art dealer Paul Cassirer and his scandalous actress-wife Tilla Durieux, to Van Gogh's admirers, who included Joseph Goebbels, Bertolt Brecht, and Hermann Hesse. He explores the tawdry world of physical culture, inflationary economics, and experimental sexuality for which Weimar Berlin was the undisputed capital and moves his characters through the Edwardian peace of the pre-1914 era, into the world war, the shocking seasons of revolution, the tempests of the Weimar Republic, and finally into the Nazi era. Eksteins illuminates how a world of norms and expertise gave way to an unanchored, turbulent world in which art, creativity, and expression redefined political and cultural desire. More than simply an astute historical and cultural observation, Solar Dance offers a remarkable intellectual voice that drives a thesis about the compelling, appalling status of authenticity and illusion in the twentieth century.
Globe and Mail - Mark Kingwell
Modris Eksteins's subtle and engaging account of how Vincent van Gogh came to be strangled by his own success bestows a great gift: new strangeness. In 56 short sections, each linked to a van Gogh work, he interweaves the large fabric of culture, politics and money with the small, pedestrian tale of a man arrested in 1927 for offering 30 forged van Goghs for sale.
Quill & Quire - Jan Dutkiewicz
Eksteins brings the exuberance and precariousness of the age, and of Berlin itself, to life with detail, wit, and a marvelously researched cast of characters. Coupled with the intriguing treatment of van Gogh as an amalgam of artist and celebrity, the component parts of which cannot be treated separately, this makes for fascinating reading.
Maclean's - Brian Bethune
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.
National Post - Jeet Heer
Brilliant...Eksteins' deeply researched historical study tells the story of the Van Gogh forgeries that flooded the German art market in the 1920s and the way that the counterfeiting of masterpieces was part and parcel of a larger cultural breakdown that destroyed German democracy...Eksteins is among the most erudite and perspicacious of scholars. In explaining the forgeries of the 1920s, he gives us an eye-opening and wide-ranging history of the Van Gogh cult, finding unexpected evidence of the painter's spectral influence in everything from a novel written by Joseph Goebbels to the childhood of the scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer to the fall of the Berlin Wall...The story of Wacker's unlikely rise and equally quick unraveling makes for compulsive reading, made especially gripping by Eksteins' sure-handed unfolding of the narrative...Eksteins is a major historian and Solar Dance, like everything he writes, deserves a wide and attentive readership.
Wall Street Journal - Hugh Eakin
Eksteins has a knack for pinpointing moments in the rise of Modernism that expose the deep social forces that have shaped our world...Our uncertainty about Van Gogh's work, he paradoxically suggests, is inextricably linked to the rupture of traditional ideology and morality that attracts us to the artist in the first place. Nowhere was the rupture more dramatic than in the final years of the Weimar Republic...With a saturation of cultural reference, Solar Dance conveys the heady atmosphere that made Berlin the first European capital to embrace the transforming potential of art in a secular age. Yet it also created the ideological void that ended in the rise of Hitler. Van Gogh was celebrated as a solitary genius whose paintings rebelled "against the formalism of the establishment" and made "the untamed decorative"; but the potential for fakery in his messy oeuvre, and for embellishment of his biography, risked introducing just the kind of "fantasy world of myth and mastery" that drew people to National Socialism--a process Eksteins recounts in the final part of the book.
American Scholar - Graeme Wood
Modris Eksteins's Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty tells the story of Wacker's deception and discovery, and of a cultural milieu eager to be taken in. He provides, in the early section, a lively but brief retelling of the familiar story of Van Gogh's tumultuous life and 1890 death. There follows a broad reconstruction of the artistic and cultural scene of Weimar-era Berlin—active, morally unmoored, gay, ripe for Nazi condemnation and takeover—and a loose but persistent argument that this period with its clash of values was the inflection point between the philosophical certainty of the 19th century and the doubt of the present… Eksteins's book does a fine job of chronicling the era's aesthetic confusion.
Choice - M. Deshmukh
Eksteins ambitiously surveys several features of late-19th- and 20th-century culture. He narrates the oft-told tale of struggling avant-garde artist Vincent van Gogh, whose 'value' is realized only after his death. In this lively discussion of the fragmentation and uncertainty of cultural canons in an age of dissolving traditional values, Ecksteins, author of the acclaimed Rites of Spring (1989), brings his erudition and knowledge of European cultural history to bear on the diverse visual and intellectual threads of the 20th century, weaving a tale that is part detective story and part probing cultural analysis. His cast of characters range from the Dutch artist who serves as the central 'sun' around which orbits the denizens of high and low culture, to the critically important early-20th-century German art critic and van Gogh biographer Julius Meier-Graefe, to the late-20th-century U.S. pop singer Don McLean, composer of the huge hit 'Vincent' ('Starry, Starry Night'). The myriad of fascinating links tying the painter to so many aspects of 20th- and 21st-century culture are, indeed, quite remarkable. With his sure command of the literature, Eksteins tells an intriguing tale of art and cultural authenticity.
Maclean’s
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.
— Brian Bethune
National Post

Brilliant...Ecksteins' deeply researched historical study tells the story of the Van Gogh forgeries that flooded the German art market in the 1920s and the way that the counterfeiting of masterpieces was part and parcel of a larger cultural breakdown that destroyed German democracy...Eksteins is among the most erudite and perspicacious of scholars. In explaining the forgeries of the 1920s, he gives us an eye-opening and wide-ranging history of the Van Gogh cult, finding unexpected evidence of the painter's spectral influence in everything from a novel written by Joseph Goebbels to the childhood of the scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer to the fall of the Berlin Wall...The story of Wacker's unlikely rise and equally quick unraveling makes for compulsive reading, made especially gripping by Eksteins' sure-handed unfolding of the narrative...Eksteins is a major historian and Solar Dance, like everything he writes, deserves a wide and attentive readership.
— Jeet Heer

Wall Street Journal

Eksteins has a knack for pinpointing moments in the rise of Modernism that expose the deep social forces that have shaped our world...Our uncertainty about Van Gogh's work, he paradoxically suggests, is inextricably linked to the rupture of traditional ideology and morality that attracts us to the artist in the first place. Nowhere was the rupture more dramatic than in the final years of the Weimar Republic...With a saturation of cultural reference, Solar Dance conveys the heady atmosphere that made Berlin the first European capital to embrace the transforming potential of art in a secular age. Yet it also created the ideological void that ended in the rise of Hitler. Van Gogh was celebrated as a solitary genius whose paintings rebelled "against the formalism of the establishment" and made "the untamed decorative"; but the potential for fakery in his messy oeuvre, and for embellishment of his biography, risked introducing just the kind of "fantasy world of myth and mastery" that drew people to National Socialism—a process Eksteins recounts in the final part of the book.
— Hugh Eakin

American Scholar

Modris Eksteins's Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty tells the story of Wacker's deception and discovery, and of a cultural milieu eager to be taken in. He provides, in the early section, a lively but brief retelling of the familiar story of Van Gogh's tumultuous life and 1890 death. There follows a broad reconstruction of the artistic and cultural scene of Weimar-era Berlin—active, morally unmoored, gay, ripe for Nazi condemnation and takeover—and a loose but persistent argument that this period with its clash of values was the inflection point between the philosophical certainty of the 19th century and the doubt of the present… Eksteins's book does a fine job of chronicling the era's aesthetic confusion.
— Graeme Wood

Maclean's

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.
— Brian Bethune

Choice

Eksteins ambitiously surveys several features of late-19th- and 20th-century culture. He narrates the oft-told tale of struggling avant-garde artist Vincent van Gogh, whose 'value' is realized only after his death. In this lively discussion of the fragmentation and uncertainty of cultural canons in an age of dissolving traditional values, Ecksteins, author of the acclaimed Rites of Spring (1989), brings his erudition and knowledge of European cultural history to bear on the diverse visual and intellectual threads of the 20th century, weaving a tale that is part detective story and part probing cultural analysis. His cast of characters range from the Dutch artist who serves as the central 'sun' around which orbits the denizens of high and low culture, to the critically important early-20th-century German art critic and van Gogh biographer Julius Meier-Graefe, to the late-20th-century U.S. pop singer Don McLean, composer of the huge hit 'Vincent' ('Starry, Starry Night'). The myriad of fascinating links tying the painter to so many aspects of 20th- and 21st-century culture are, indeed, quite remarkable. With his sure command of the literature, Eksteins tells an intriguing tale of art and cultural authenticity.
— M. Deshmukh

Library Journal
In 1932 Berlin, a young man named Otto Wacker stood trial for art fraud and forgery of a number of Van Gogh paintings. The victim, Berlin's cultural scene, enabled the fraud as much as it suffered from it. Eksteins (history, emeritus, Univ. of Toronto; Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age) has interwoven a discussion of artistry—Van Gogh's vision of reality and his doubts about himself and the world—with an examination of the aspirations and volatility of the short-lived Weimar republic and the emergence of Nazism. Following World War I, Germany was economically devastated, despairing, and in a state of denial; and Berlin adopted Van Gogh as its iconic figure. The sudden "discovery" of a trove of unknown Van Goghs, which had supposedly been in the possession of a Russian collector, found a willing market in the city. When Wacker's fraud was discovered, it shattered Berliners' faith in reliable standards and innate value. VERDICT This is a fascinating story, combining art history with social commentary and political acumen. Interwar Germany is well drawn and the search for purpose and meaning is one all readers will recognize.—Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Lib., New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674065673
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 4/17/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 996,614
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Modris Eksteins is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.
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Read an Excerpt

From Part One: The Palette



Spirits



“In the early twentieth century a wind was blowing in Berlin,” recalled the Belgian architect and designer Henry van de Velde in his memoirs. That wind of change could not be confined to Berlin. It reached to Dresden and Munich, where like-minded artists joined together to promote what one of their number, Wassily Kandinsky, called “the spiritual in art.” In 1911 the art historian Wilhelm Worringer was the first to apply the term Expressionism to a new tendency “in which mind declares its autonomy over the experience of nature.” Expressionism represented a spiritual rebellion against science, materialism, and law. Emerging from the depths of the human soul, the movement would redeem mankind from the world of matter and connect it to the cosmic, eternal, and godly—or so its proponents promised. One of the principal innovators behind the new development, said Worringer, had been Vincent van Gogh.

By the time Worringer composed his treatise, Van Gogh’s influence on contemporary German art was openly acknowledged. The group of painters in Dresden who in 1905 formed Die Brücke (The Bridge), among them Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Ferdinand Hodler, enthused over the Van Gogh work they had seen at the local Arnold gallery that year. They took their name from a comment by Nietzsche: “What is great in man is that he is a bridge, not a goal.” In 1911 a group of artists in Munich formed a counterpart of The Bridge which they called Der blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). They had first encountered Van Gogh three years earlier, when two Munich galleries, Zimmermann and Brakl, exhibited some of his paintings.

The transplanted Russian painter Alexej Jawlensky, a former military officer who had moved to Munich, bought The House of Père Pilon from Brakl. He wrote Johanna van Gogh a letter of appreciation: “Van Gogh has been a teacher and a model to me. Both as man and artist he is dear and close to me. It has been one of my most ardent desires for years to possess something from his hand ... Never did a work by your late brother-in-law find itself in more reverent hands.” Jawlensky would attribute what he called “inner ecstasy” in his own work to Van Gogh’s inspiration. His compatriot and colleague in Munich, Kandinsky, also went through a phase in 1908 and 1909 when Van Gogh’s influence, especially in the free use of color, was obvious. Walter Leistikow, Franz Marc, August Macke, Heinrich Campendonk, Max Ernst, and Gabriele Münter were others who acknowledged the inspiration of Van Gogh, to the point where some made a conscious effort to distinguish themselves from his effect. “I had moments when I hated Van Gogh,” said Heinrich Nauen, “because I felt that he was oppressing my spirit; I hated him as lovers can hate when they stifle each other.”

The German Expressionist artists borrowed from Impressionism, especially its emphasis on color and life, but at the same time distanced themselves vociferously from the “French style” that they considered frivolous and superficial. The detail, precision, and loyalty to nature of Impressionism gave way to bolder strokes and more strident emotion. It was the psychic realm that interested the Expressionists. To them and their “raw art” Van Gogh became a hero. “The whole of French art,” remarked Jawlensky, is nature beautifully, extremely beautifully, observed; but all in all that is too little: one has to create one’s own nature, Van Gogh.” Here the Dutchman was being turned into a teacher, mentor, and veritable school of his own. The Expressionists were attracted not only to Van Gogh’s dramatic colors but also to his mysticism, madness, and death. In 1907 Emil Nolde suggested to the Dresden group that they call themselves “Van Goghiana” rather than “The Bridge.” Others were to say later of the Dresden circle that their paintings looked like an encounter of Van Gogh with Nietzsche.

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Table of Contents

The Issue 1

Part 1 The Palette

Vision 7

Sky Aglow 9

Sun on Suns 13

Spring 28

Dealer 34

Aesthete 41

Scribbler 45

Madam 51

Spirit 53

Storm 59

Phantasms 63

Part 2 The Perspective

Winds 73

Fever 82

Sodomia 88

Sun Child 93

Showtime 96

Palace Revolution 98

Stories 105

Sailor Boy 113

Certifiers 116

Caveat Emptor 124

Fame 127

Source 131

Alarum 134

Alexanderplatz 138

Coup 141

Surreality 148

Sensation 152

Ravens 157

Evidence 161

Cela n est pas… 166

Part 3 The Painting

Present Sense 169

Seance 171

Scripts 173

Sequence 179

Etcetera 186

Plus ça change … 191

Appreciation 195

Experts 198

Proof 200

Soul 203

Summations 205

Sentence 208

Appeal 210

Part 4 The Response

Synonyms 221

Symbol 224

Sophienstrasse 229

Reaper 233

Night Light 239

Studio Sanary 244

Crime Scene 248

Part 5 The Effect

Mender 259

Scheherezade 262

Wall 269

Our Weimar 275

Mania 279

Epilogue 283

Notes 285

Acknowledgements 321

Photo Credits 325

Index 327

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