- Short-listed, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
- Winner, BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
In Solar Dance, acclaimed writer and scholar Modris Eksteins uses Vincent van Gogh as his lens for this brilliant survey of Western culture and politics in the last century.
The long-awaited follow-up to Modris Eksteins' internationally acclaimed Rites of Spring and Walking Since Daybreak. Now he has produced another thrilling, iconoclastic work of cultural history that is a trailblazing biography of an era--from the eve of the First World War and the rise of Hitler to the fall of the Berlin Wall--that illuminates our current world, with its cults of celebrity and the crisis of the authentic. Solar Dance is a penetrating examination of legitimacy and truth, fakery and pretence--highly relevant to all of us today.
The face is soft and pleasant, the forehead high, the brow clean. This man in his early thirties has wavy auburn hair and a mouth, small and gentle, poised on the verge of a smile that nonetheless never comes. The eyes, too, have a tentative look— perhaps ready to dart fawnlike side to side. The hands, however, are prominent and purposeful. Hands of a pianist? A painter? Perhaps a dancer, designed to lift, suspend, and suggest? This is Otto Wacker. He is on trial in the old Moabit courthouse in central Berlin. He stands accused of knowingly selling forged art. It is April 1932.
Wacker has made a name for himself. Within a few short years he has risen from provincial obscurity to national prominence. First dancer, then art dealer, gallery owner, and publisher, he has turned heads. In March 1928 the Gallery Schulte on Unter den Linden, Berlin’s famous promenade, home to libraries, embassies, a university, and the Imperial Palace, holds an exhibition of celebrity portraits from the world of film and theatre. One of those select images is of Otto Wacker.1 There he is in full glory on a wall of achievement. He represents youth, vitality, success. With his good looks and energy he embodies the aspirations of that postwar generation, enveloped as it is by the odour of death—some nine million had died in the Great War and at least twice as many in the influenza epidemic that followed— and yet exuberant about life.
Suddenly, in that same year, 1928, Wacker’s world implodes. He is accused of fraud, of selling forged pictures purportedly by Vincent van Gogh, an artist who lived in provincial obscurity akin to Otto Wacker’s experience as a youth but who now, nearly thirty years after his death, has shot like a comet to stardom. The trajectories of artist and dealer have striking similarities. Four years later, in 1932, Wacker’s case finally reaches the courts. He pleads innocence.
In the courtroom the young man is beset by a different generation, stooped and grey, bespectacled and earnest. All its members are primly attired, in legal garb or dark suits. The tone, among judges, lawyers, and witnesses, is sombre. Credibility is on the line—the integrity of experts, dealers, the art market, and even the legal system of the postwar German Republic. But beyond that, an entire world is called into question, a world of fixity, defined values, and acknowledged standards. Mired in an ever-deepening depression, the German economy is in shambles. In politics the rise of Adolf Hitler is the talk of the day. In the Moabit courtroom, legitimacy and authority are on trial, along with Otto Wacker.
That Vincent van Gogh is central to this drama is no coincidence. His life story and his art are key evidence of the mounting existential crisis that marks modernism—that spiritual journey of the Western world from a vision of moderation and progressivism to a culture of ever greater extravagance. By the early 1920s his fame is on the rise. His work, with its colour, energy, and implicit tragedy, obviously speaks to people, not just critics and collectors but the broader public. Many feel a deep kinship with this man who, in any conventional terms, was a complete failure in his life and in his art: he sold but one painting; he hurt people deeply; he spent time in an asylum; and he committed suicide. Yet, within a few decades of his death in 1890, his story is well known and the demand for his work far exceeds the supply. At the same time, as the acceptance in some quarters verges on worship, elsewhere the denunciations multiply. For his detractors, Van Gogh represents disintegration and collapse, the very death of art, of beauty and truth. Vincent van Gogh has become a symbol of the modern condition that some see as an eruption of life, a birthing, and others regard as a hysterical move from stability to excess.
The trial of Otto Wacker lasts for the better part of two weeks. Emotions run high: reputations are at stake, worlds in conflict. The defendant could have been the subject of a Van Gogh portrait— his eyes give him the look of a naïf, a victim. He would fit alongside Armand Roulin (F 492), The One-Eyed Man (F 532), Young Man with a Cap (F 536), or even the iconic Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (F 527). Wacker’s life itself is plausibly a modern work of art: truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, all in one, with categories blurring and collapsing.
If modernism and postmodernism, the two dominant cultural “isms” of the past century, have had a unifying motif, it is the quest for authenticity and the concomitant breakdown of previous distinctions. The tale of Otto Wacker and Vincent van Gogh takes us to the very heart of that quest that confronts us all. What is real? What is true?
MODRIS EKSTEINS is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto. His bestselling, acclaimed Rites of Spring was published in 9 countries, won the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize and the Trillium Book Award, and was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. Walking Since Daybreak was also a national bestseller, winner of the Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize, and was named one of the Best Books of 2000 by the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Times and the Globe and Mail.close this panel
FINALIST 2012 – Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction
SHORTLISTED 2013 – BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
LONGLISTED 2013 – Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
WINNER 2013 – BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
“Brilliant.... Deeply researched.... The story of Wacker’s unlikely rise and equally quick unravelling makes for compulsive reading, made especially gripping by Eksteins’ sure-handed unfolding of the narrative. A crackerjack archival researcher, Ekstein brings to life not just Wacker but the world that created him and allowed him to briefly thrive.... Eksteins is a major historian and Solar Dance, like everything he writes, deserves a wide and attentive readership.”
—Jeet Heer, National Post
“Solar Dance vividly captures the large within the small…. It’s a story of an evocative moment along the 20th century’s ideology-ravaged road.”
“Subtle and engaging…. 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, The Globe and Mail
“Uses Van Gogh as a prism to illuminate the contradictions and complexities of modernism and modernity. The results are learned . . . elegant . . . provocative.”
—Winnipeg Free Press