Jim Coughenour's Reviews > Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age

Solar Dance by Modris Eksteins
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Mar 12, 2012

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bookshelves: biography, europeanhistory, art
Read from March 12 to 19, 2012

A few months ago I bought the new Van Gogh biography, and it's been snoozing on my shelves ever since. So I felt a bit foolish picking up a second book on Van Gogh. But Eksteins' book promised to be both less and more. At the heart of Solar Dance is the curious tale of Otto Wacker, "a young gay dancer turned art impresario" (flap copy) who in the final years of the celebrated, maligned Weimar Republic introduced a small gallery of previously-unknown Van Goghs into the art market. Most, if not all, of these paintings were forgeries. The tale is rich with irony: these same paintings were authenticated (then de-authenticated) by a raft of experts, and purchased by wealthy, tetchy collectors. The artist who painted them – like their original owner, an émigré who supposedly spirited them out of Russia – has never been identified.

The tale of Otto and his forgeries is worthy of one of those legendary New Yorker articles of 50 pages, but it's not enough for a whole book. Eksteins seems to realize this – and here's where the book gets into trouble, at least for me. Precariously, both Van Gogh and Wacker made to stand not only for Weimar culture, but for modernity itself (its uncertainties, instabilities, etc.). The warning sounds early: "More than ever today, Van Gogh is ours, and we are Van Gogh. And Otto Wacker is one of us." (p 3) Although this may have a certain apothegmatic ring, it really doesn't mean anything.

This disposition toward inflation and ludicrous "connections" mars what is otherwise a fairly interesting book:

Over the years the Oppenheimers acquired ... a few Van Goghs. These Van Goghs dominated a living room decorated in gilt. At the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer would produce his own version of a rising sun, a scientific work of art "brighter than a thousand suns." (p. 254)

[The poet Paul Celan] survived the Holocaust, but his parents did not. How was he subsequently to express himself? Could he even use the German language? And would not any notion of poetry automatically be a lie after Auschwitz? (p. 271)

Automatically?! This turns Adorno's already specious dictum into mechanical nonsense. One final example:

When students rioted in Chicago in 1968 their demands included the abolition of money and the acknowledgement that every human being is an artist. Such is the legacy of Weimar. And such is the legacy of Vincent Van Gogh. (p. 278)

Fortunately, most of the book isn't this vacuous, and I'm still looking forward to reading Eksteins' classic Rites of Spring.

______________

Note: this is review of the U.S. edition published by Harvard, which has a different subtitle (and possibly different pagination) from the Canadian edition.
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Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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message 1: by AC (new) - added it

AC Please let me know how this is; I'm a big fan of Rites and almost bought this the other day...


message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jim Coughenour I will! Quite good so far. It's inspired me pull Rites of Spring back out of the book closet, which I started long ago but never finished.


message 3: by Szplug (new)

Szplug Wow, I was not at all aware that Eksteins had put out a new book. Like AC, I'm a fan of the revelatory Rites of Spring; I might have to make a move for this one in hardback...


message 4: by AC (new) - added it

AC You're our guinea pig, Jim... ;-)


message 5: by Szplug (new)

Szplug Between the pair of you, I've been pointed towards a steady stream of fantastic reads...I'm overdue to take on the guinea pigging myself!

BTW, AC, I just today received a used copy of What Plato Said. It's the abridged version, unfortunately, but the price was amazing.


message 6: by AC (new) - added it

AC Not worth much, I'm afraid..., as I warned you. The great value of the book is in the footnotes. Without the notes, you can't evaluate the reliability of the text. It becomes just one more set of "opinions".

That said, let me know what you make of it.


message 7: by Szplug (last edited Mar 14, 2012 12:02PM) (new)

Szplug Oh, I fully expect to appreciate this one big time. Books are unlimited, time's short, and so is life—and, if nothing else, Shorey's exegesis of Plato's corpus will help point me towards the dialogues I wish to immerse myself within over the next several months, and those which I can postpone attending to until a further period.

I have read the Euthyphro and Apology, so it will be interesting, right off of the bat, to see how Shorey's interpretation aligns with mine.


message 8: by AC (new) - added it

AC Let me suggest, in all humility, that you would do much better to see how your interpretation aligns with Shorey's.

The classic book of Shorey is called The Unity of Plato's Thought. It is not an easy book to read since - as with Cherniss - you really need to know a lot to read it correctly. But it is a remarkable book. It is also very short.


message 9: by Szplug (new)

Szplug Well, of course that's what I meant. I'm a Plato simpleton, and I'm hardly going to be taking Shorey to task.

Thanks for the pointer. I've got that one in mind for a future period when I've more under my belt.


message 10: by AC (new) - added it

AC Chris wrote: "Well, of course that's what I meant. I'm a Plato simpleton, and I'm hardly going to be taking Shorey to task.

Thanks for the pointer. I've got that one in mind for a future period when I've more u..."


Just kidding you -- Unity is in print now for $15 -


message 11: by Szplug (last edited Mar 14, 2012 09:07PM) (new)

Szplug Gotcha. I've noticed those $15 editions—and thanks again for taking the time to send me that Shorey link by PM.

Jim—sorry about hijacking your comment thread here. For my part, please feel free to delete the whole mess if you are so inclined.


message 12: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Ohh man I'm fascinated by van Gogh and also forgeries (like the Vermeer guy)....and Rites of Spring looks amazing.


message 13: by AC (new) - added it

AC Moira wrote: "Ohh man I'm fascinated by van Gogh and also forgeries (like the Vermeer guy)....and Rites of Spring looks amazing."

The guy who wrote that book on the Vermeer forgeries is a goodreads author. It's a fabulous book. My understanding was that his next book will, in fact, be on Van Gogh.

Rites of Spring IS amazing...


message 14: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell AC wrote: "My understanding was that his next book will, in fact, be on Van Gogh. "

Oh, fantastic! (WTF goodreads show me the goddamn comments....)


message 15: by Jim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jim Coughenour Hey Chris - that's the whole point of Goodreads, right? I've been enjoying the thread.


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