Van Gogh's Strange Afterlife

The Art Archive/National Gallery London

Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' was sold at auction for $39.7 million in 1987, then a world record for a painting.

It is hard to pinpoint when exactly Vincent van Gogh crossed over from being a mere titan of modern art to a general symptom of our culture—a painter whose name adorns bottles of vodka and whose supposedly liberating madness is regarded with worshipful reverence. Twenty-five years ago, his paintings ushered in the era of stratospheric prices for leading Modernists, with the sale of "Sunflowers" for $39.7 million and "Irises" for $52.9 million—at the time, three- and fourfold increases over the previous world record for any work of art. Not long after that, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito set a new mark again by paying $82.5 million for "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" and then suggested that he might have it cremated and buried with him.

But despite continual invocation in exhibitions, movies and books, little of the legend of mad Vincent withstands serious scrutiny. If anything characterizes Van Gogh's intensely felt landscapes and portraits, the critic Robert Hughes long ago observed, it is lucidity, not lunacy. And the scrupulous recent biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, while continuing the tradition of viewing the artist's work as an expression of his "fanatic" personality, nevertheless concludes that his untimely death by a gunshot wound was more likely an accident than a raving suicide. What is perhaps more surprising is that almost as many questions surround the art as the life. In the past two decades, museums around the world have quietly downgraded some 40 works formerly attributed to the artist, and doubts have been raised about even highly sought-after paintings like the record-breaking "Sunflowers."
In "Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty," the cultural historian Modris Eksteins argues that Van Gogh's paradoxical status—he is "the most popular artist of all time," yet his work is clouded in uncertainties—points to something more fundamental about our own society and the place of art within it. Amid the devastating violence of the two world wars, Mr. Eksteins observes, the norms of behavior and belief that had governed social relations for centuries broke down. Critics, reflecting their times, increasingly saw in the fiery canvases of Van Gogh and other "misfit" Modernists not only a new way of perceiving the world but also a spiritual response to an age in which few certitudes had gone unchallenged. "Van Gogh's greatest brilliance may have been his doubt," Mr. Eksteins writes. "That doubt now pervades our entire enterprise."
Mr. Eksteins has a knack for pinpointing moments in the rise of Modernism that expose the deep social forces that have shaped our world. His pathbreaking "Rites of Spring" (1989) argued that radical artistic experiments like Stravinsky's infamous ballet "The Rite of Spring" were a defining part of the political and psychological crises that precipitated World War I. Now he sets out to show that Van Gogh's pervasive hold on 20th-century culture has little to do with the early Modernists of fin de siècle France, where his brief career played out. Instead, Mr. Eksteins provocatively argues, Van Gogh's prevalence can be traced to the cultural anxieties of 1920s Germany, where his art first gained wide notoriety—and where a major controversy over fakes erupted.

Van Gogh (1853-90) sold hardly any of his art during his lifetime, and on his death at age 37 his paintings were deemed nearly worthless in Paris. On the other side of the Rhine, however, the artist was seen as a Nietzschean hero whose blazing canvases—"screaming in horror to the heavens," as the critic Julius Meier-Graefe put it—seemed to anticipate an age in which art had replaced faith. Along with Meier-Graefe, who had become enamored of the French Impressionists while living in Paris in the 1890s, other instigators of the German Van Gogh cult included the socially connected Count Harry Kessler, the powerful art dealer Paul Cassirer and the shipping heiress Helene Müller, who quickly amassed a collection (now housed in the Kröller-Müller museum in the Netherlands) that was exceeded only by the artist's own estate.

Even before World War I, Van Gogh's work was represented in nearly a dozen German museums—far more than in any other country. But it was during the Weimar period that he entered the culture at large. Establishing the pattern that has been followed ever since, Meier-Graefe's wildly successful biography "Vincent" (1921) celebrated the artist's turbulent life as the fount of his art, and the pursuit of Van Gogh's paintings took on a tulip-like mania. "Around this time," the novelist Elias Canetti later wrote, "the Van Gogh religion began."

Into this mix dived Otto Wacker, a gay dancer turned art dealer, who in 1925 produced a cache of 33 previously unknown Van Goghs. The paintings—of characteristic late subjects ranging from wheat fields to a "Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear"—were of variable quality, and their provenance was dubious. (Wacker claimed that he had been hired to represent an unnamed Russian collector who had taken the works to imperial Russia early in the century and recently smuggled them out of the Soviet Union.) Yet he convinced the leading experts—including Meier-Graefe and Jacob-Baart de la Faille, the Dutch scholar editing the first Van Gogh catalogue raisonné—and began selling the paintings to dealers like Cassirer, who placed them in the top private collections.

Only when a 1928 exhibition placed Wacker Van Goghs next to the real thing did misgivings surface. A fraud case slowly got under way, and, in 1932, Wacker was found guilty after a sensational trial that featured paintings in the courtroom and conflicting expert testimony. Despite having no particular expertise in Postimpressionism, Ludwig Justi, the ambitious director of Berlin's Nationalgalerie, told the court that the Wacker paintings were "as false as any pictures can possibly be" and ridiculed the scholars who authenticated them. For their part, the Van Gogh specialists confusingly claimed, in contrast to the court's own findings, that some were real and some were fake.

None of this much dampened Van Gogh's appeal. As a German newspaper observed in 1929: "Within a short space of time [the case] has done more for the artist's fame than his prophets were able to achieve in 30 years." Mr. Eksteins offers a more complex reading. "Though Wacker went to prison," he observes, "it was the experts, and by corollary any traditional notion of authority, that lost the most respect in the prolonged and painful affair." De la Faille, whose flawed catalog is still a standard reference work on Van Gogh, reversed his own conclusions several times. And Justi, even as he was heaping scorn on the Wacker paintings, rashly bought two Van Goghs for his own museum that were quickly exposed as likely forgeries.

For Mr. Eksteins, the collapse of established authority that emerges is a defining part of the Van Gogh cult. 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, that "fantastic panorama of commotion, imagination, and violence" where Mr. Ekstein's centers his account.

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 Mr. Eksteins recounts in the final part of the book.

Yet in pressing the political reading of the Van Gogh affair, Mr. Eksteins can get carried away; he is unlikely to persuade readers that "Nazism was, in short, much like the artworks peddled by Otto Wacker." A larger question is whether Weimar can adequately account for the durability of the Van Gogh myths today. In his overriding interest in the artist's fascinating German afterlife, Mr. Eksteins gives rather short shrift to Van Gogh controversies elsewhere, some of which have involved a similar undermining of cultural authority without any of Weimar's social upheaval.

He does not mention, for example, the case of "Study by Candelight," an unfinished painting authenticated by De la Faille (who called it one of the artist's best self-portraits) and sold to the head of Universal Pictures in 1948. It was brought to the United States and celebrated in the press, but after the director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam declared it a fake, the painting was withdrawn from a 1949 Van Gogh exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (The Met's curators termed it "strident in color, weak in drawing, and uncertain in the modeling of the head.") Other experts hired by the U.S. Treasury—which was responsible for determining the painting's authenticity since original artworks can be brought into the country duty free while reproductions are taxed—concluded that "it was a real Van Gogh and therefore exempt from import duties." Today the painting is omitted from Van Gogh catalogs, and its whereabouts are unknown.

Of course, none of these disputes can quite measure up to the actual paintings. Van Gogh's elusive oeuvre still awaits a full treatment on its own terms, unraveled from the madness and the mania that surrounds it. But if the $119 million paid last week for Edvard Munch's "The Scream"—the latest auction record—is any indication, the frenzied pursuit of Modernist anomie shows no sign of slowing. As Mr. Eksteins shows, that appetite, like the Van Gogh cult to which it has given shape, may tell us far less about the art than about ourselves.

—Mr. Eakin, a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, writes frequently about museums and the art market.
The Wall Street Journal


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