Saturday, June 23, 2012

Solar Dance

Solar Dance / Modris Eksteins
Toronto: Random House Canada, c2012.
268 p.

Quite a few years ago I read Eksteins' history called The Rites of Spring: the Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. It remains one of the most brilliant books I've ever read on the subject. I was a history student in university but found this book to be one of the most memorable and engaging histories I've ever read. Eksteins is terrific at drawing out the cultural and artistic elements that have shaped society in many ways.

So, when I saw this book, I knew I was going to have to read it. It also looks at the cultural elements of European society in the interwar years, with the idea that the crisis of identity and truth we face today had its roots in that era. The aim of this book is to focus on parallels between Van Gogh and the cult of celebrity that arose around him after his death, and the effect this had on Germany during the years of the Weimar Republic (Eksteins' specialty) -- and how it fed into the rise of Nazism, as well as the rise in propaganda and other ways of bending truth. To do so, Eksteins delves into the interwar art world, as represented primarily by Otto Wacker, a young dancer, painter, art dealer and convicted forger/seller of forgeries. Using the story of Otto Wacker (who was known by various names), Eksteins explores the state of art, legality, political realities, strong personalities (nearly all men), and financial considerations shaping life in Germany in the years between the wars.

As Eksteins says at the beginning of the book:
[Otto's] story is worth telling because many of the issues confronting Weimar remain issues for us today as well -- above all, the question of what is true and what is real. The crisis of Weimar marked in many respects the onset of our own crisis, and entertainment have blurred, where information and disinformation have become difficult to separate, where mundane reality and gleaming image often pretend to be the same. 
The book is broken into sections named after Van Gogh paintings, and the reader is encouraged to go to the online Vincent Van Gogh Gallery to examine each of the mentioned images as we read along. It's an interesting conceit for the structure of the book, and adds a visual element to everything we're learning as we read.

Eksteins' knowledge of this period is hugely expansive, and as in The Rites of Spring, he uses art and culture to illuminate political and societal realities. In his view, politics and commerce do not exist at a remove from art, rather, a country and culture can only be truly understood if the arts are considered as much a part of daily experience as everything else.

In Solar Dance, however, I felt there was a bit of stretching to fit everything into the premise about authenticity vs. forgery as regards identity. The fact that Van Gogh became a cultural phenomenon and that Otto Wacker, art dealer on the make, suddenly came into possession of 33 previously unknown paintings, does contrast the idea of genuine vs. fake. And Eksteins continues this line of thought to include questions of identity, National Socialism and propaganda. It's true that there are questions of truth in all of these areas, but I wasn't fully convinced of Van Gogh's part in it all. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating read and full of telling moments.

The book begins with an exploration of Van Gogh's life, moves into an examination of Otto Wacker's origins, and then spends a great deal of time on Wacker's 1932 trial and its aftereffects on Wacker and the art world in Germany and across Europe. It doesn't surprise that society preferred sanctioned "truth" to actual truth as Hitler rose to power -- preferring forgeries of Van Gogh to current art geniuses who also happened to be Jewish, for example.

In closing, Eksteins draws a parallel between everything he's just shared and our own society:
Van Gogh is ours. We are Van Gogh. We have consumed and subsumed his reality, above all his creative wonder and bewilderment. But we are also his equally enigmatic other, Otto Wacker, the poseur and facilitator. As we copy and digitize sans cesse, as our technology of reproduction obliterates any sense of permanence and constancy, the fraudster merges with the artist, and in the process all chance of authenticity may be lost. 
I suppose the next question we have to ask ourselves is whether through our acceptance of 'resampling' rather than authenticity, are we blinding ourselves to the kinds of catastrophic political change found in the Weimar years?


  1. This book sounds absolutely fascinating -- thank you for your review of it.
    Within this past week I visited a Van Gogh exhibit here in Ottawa [45 paintings, truly magnificent] and I do love these books that come along now and then to remind us of the importance of great Art and its effects on history. [I think of Stephen Greenblatt's recent The Swerve].
    This a book I will now watch for in my travels. Thank you.

  2. Cip - I think you might like it -- it was neat to look up the images that he mentioned and have that visual as you read the section named for a specific painting. And you must read Rites of Spring as well. SO GOOD.

  3. I really like the cover of this book. It's not something I would normally read, but it does sound good.

  4. Kailana - I found it a bit slow going in the middle but am glad I persevered. Lots of fascinating information and food for thought.


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