Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age
Modris Eksteins (Knopf Canada 2012, hardcover) 341 pages inc. notes and index, $35 cover price
I can certainly tell you one thing. Someone’s going to make one hell of a good movie about a guy named Otto Wacker. The movie could be anything: absurdist comedy, dark drama, documentary; Wacker was also a dancer besides being a dealer in fake Van Goghs, so the movie of his life could even be a musical. He certainly had the personality for it. Undoubtedly a con man, he was one of those interesting aesthetes who always remind one of Joel Grey in Cabaret. In fact, if Der Host and that club had been real and not fictional, Wacker would have been both a regular customer and a big tipper too.
Wacker is the true-life central character that runs through Solar Dance and thank heaven for him. Modris Eksteins’ book comes alive and literally draws one leaning into the pages when the narrative of Wacker is central to the page. When the story occasionally drifts away from him, well it often drifts.
Eksteins, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Toronto - which means he’s damn good, as they don’t hand those out with the olives and small sandwiches at swank fund-raising events - he is definitely going big game hunting here. Amazingly, the word geist never appears once in Solar Dance’s pages yet the book is all about just that. With the bulge of the book’s bell curve falling between the end of World War One and the rise of Hitler, Eksteins is essentially saying that the rise in popularity of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and the attendant crimes of forgery is the perfect microscope slide of the age of the Weimar Republic.
Well it’s an interesting thought. Interesting thoughts are always delightful to consider, tasted in the mind like new flavours on the tongue. However am I convinced enough by the argument to say that I agree? Tepidly yes, but I found the sections that just followed the narrative by far the more enjoyable than when the theme is smashed over its head like a painting in a Laurel and Hardy movie.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. These two statements come clanging together. (Italics mine)
The experts would lose their purpose only when buyers purchased art out of love rather than greed, he said. (Curt) Glaser talked of the “authentication illness.”
Hitler’s regime too, would quickly be authenticated. The first international validation came from the Vatican, when the pope signed a concordat with the new German administration in July 1933. In subsequent years a long line of dignitaries paid their respects and expressed their admiration for …
Etcetera and so forth. It’s rather the same effect as Michel Foucault’s comments on structuralism: ‘Structuralism, or at least which is grouped under this slightly too general name, is the effort to establish, between elements that could have been connected on a temporal axis, an ensemble of relations that makes them appear as juxtaposed, set off against one another, implicated by each other-that makes them appear, in short, as a sort of configuration.’ In other words, just because two things are going on simultaneously does not mean that they are necessarily acting in important ways upon one another.
The analogy might be this. Imagine a newsreel of this same time in the early 1930s. The Wacker trial, for dealing literally dozens of fakes that he had bought from a never-named ‘Russian’ was a sensation in Berlin. With that kind of a storyline, why wouldn’t it be? It was a Vanity Fair piece waiting to be written. So it might have a place in a newsreel. As might Hitler walking jauntily past the Swiss Guards. On the other hand, the third story in the newsreel might be Man O’ War winning a horse race. Now I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone’s yet blamed World War Two on a horse.
The rest of Eksteins’ theory is that because it was the chaotic, insane, yet completely doomed romantic Van Gogh who became the hot artist of the time that indicates national temperaments were feeling much the same in the world after World War One. Now there I think he does have a point. Mind you, Mickey Mouse hit it pretty big back there too and Mussolini made sure to run Popeye in the funny papers. Let’s be generous though; the jury is unconvinced.
Now, the story of Wacker, the art experts who validated his fake Van Goghs and the paintings’ buyers make for cracking good storytelling. When Eksteins allows himself to have fun at some of the characters’ expense, he is hilarious. For instance, one artiste couple had a butler Emil who they both hated.
Nonetheless, they did not have the courage to dismiss him. And so, at a dinner party one evening, they staged a contretemps with a guest, replete with obscenities and threats of violence. The servant found the behaviour so alarming that he resigned forthwith. Here was theatre trumping life.
And who the heck says that Noel Coward wasn’t realistic? I will be dining out on that story for years.
There are many such stories and withering observations throughout Solar Dance, all of which are well-told. Eksteins’ commentaries on Van Gogh himself and his art are also clear and thoughtful. The flailing about of the art experts on the witness stand at Wacker’s Berlin trial (and admitting they’d been duped) is to watch reputations vanish in the air like dandelion seeds. In addition, the question lobbed out a few times like a yellow grenade at a tennis tournament is delicious: If a buyer finds value in a painting that is a fake, how can such forgery be a crime? The price dealers got for selling Van Goghs skyrocketed during the Otto Wacker affair. Now what does that tell you?
Be seeing you.