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Modernism, truth, Hitler and Van Gogh

A discussion with UTSC professor Modris Eksteins

UTSC professor Modris Eksteins' new book looks at Nazi Germany through the lens of art, especially the works of Van Gogh, whose self-portrait is pictured here. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Professor Modris Eksteins’ newest book, Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, tells the story of Otto Wacker, a dancer, painter, art dealer and eventual Nazi party member who was convicted in 1932 of selling fake Van Gogh paintings. In the process of telling that story, Eksteins examines the career of Van Gogh, the birth of modernism, the breakdown of 19th Century authority, the issues of art, authenticity, and experience, as well as Hitler's rise to power.

Eksteins is a historian of 20th-century Europe with a special interest in Germany between the World Wars. He explains how Weimar Germany was central to the rise of modernism and played an important role in the development of our modern cult of Van Gogh.

A previous book,
Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, won the Ferguson Prize and the Trillium Book Award. Another book, Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century is both a history of Latvia and a personal narrative. It won the Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize.

UTSC: How did you become interested in Van Gogh and his connection with modernism, including the rise of Nazism?

Modris Eksteins: The specific connection to Van Gogh materialized many years ago when we had the good fortune to spend a year in Provence, in Van Gogh country, and were surrounded by Van Gogh in his various incarnations. That sparked an interest in him and his art and why he was so fabulously successful posthumously. Germany in the 1920s, I learned later, played a crucial role in that story.

I was trained as a historian of Germany. I worked in the Weimar period for much of my research career. My book is an idiosyncratic history of the 20th century. It’s less about Van Gogh than it is about us and why we like Van Gogh.

UTSC: A lot of the book is about Otto Wacker, who was convicted of selling forged Van Goghs. Why were you so interested in him?

ME: The symbolism of Otto Wacker is enormous. His life is an antithesis in relation to what was and what had been. He was a boy from a working class family. He was a dancer. He became an art dealer. He was gay. He didn't have any kind of conventional social role. So he becomes very much an expression of the 1920s, of a decade of extraordinary convulsion, particularly in Germany after the Great War. The fact that he becomes a dealer in Van Goghs is absolutely central to my story.

Van Gogh in his own lifetime was a complete failure in the terms of the 19th century. He rejected all the conventions. Otto Wacker is a similar rebel, and thus the trajectories of these two are oddly similar. The two trajectories coincide in the 1920s when Wacker begins to sell hitherto unknown Van Goghs. The result of all of that is, surprisingly enough, the ever increasing success of Van Gogh posthumously.

UTSC:  You make the point that the rise of the popularity of Van Gogh had a lot to do with the rise of modernism.

ME: The two go hand in hand. Van Gogh is in a sense a forebear and also a transitional figure from the traditional to the modern. He is, in relation to what comes later, a rather gentle rebel, in fact. He's a portal to the subsequent quite ferocious rebellion that constituted the modern as it advanced.

UTSC: You also make the point that one of the things that was modern about the interest in Van Gogh was the intense interest in his personal life, almost separate from the interest in his art. Was that a new thing for the modern age?

ME:  I make the point in the book that history increasingly becomes biography. As our difficulty in interpreting and appreciating context grows, we emphasize the individual, we emphasize the biographical, we emphasize the personal. Modernism emphasizes the notion of experience, not so much the context, not so much purpose, not so much meaning, but the very immediacy of experience. That was central to the modern impulse and the modern aesthetic. Damn history. Forget about history, forget about context and live life for the moment.

UTSC: I hadn’t realized how central Weimar Germany was to the popularization of Van Gogh. Why do you think that is?

ME: Two "failures" coincide. Germany, in its convulsions, in its loss of the war, in this overpowering, overwhelming context of death and devastation that was the war, finds a soul brother in Van Gogh, the man who was rejected in his own lifetime, who was a complete and utterly miserable failure. Everything he touched he hurt, it seemed. And yet he produced this luminous art, this exhilarating art. Germans after the First World War have a similar mindset. They had lost, and yet they had to find some kind of meaning in the context of this loss, in the context of this all-encompassing defeat and death and devastation, of political and economic turmoil, where the framework was an overbearing existential doubt.

UTSC:  You draw some connection between Van Gogh and the eventual rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Can you explore that a little bit?

ME: Hitler’s another artist, another misfit, another loser -- this Austrian corporal who against his 19th century backdrop was also a miserable failure. I mean, the guy couldn't even get into art school. He was unemployed, he worked on the street producing little postcards. This misfit, in 19th century terms, becomes the foremost politician in Germany in the late 1920s, early 1930s. Again, it’s the victim as the hero, it’s the loser as a kind of Nietzschean hero, an overman. And that again fits into the context of Van Gogh’s success, it fits into the story of Wacker, who joined the Nazi party, and it fits into the story of modernism where life is meant to be an exhilarating experience rather than some kind of moral endeavor.

UTSC: You see  the transition from the 19th to the 20th century as one of the breaking down of categories, the breaking down of context, as pushing the prominence of individual experience over all else.  Do you think that continues to be a characteristic of modern life?

ME: Oh, absolutely. The 20th century as a whole, I think in retrospect, can be interpreted as an age of deconstruction, as an age of de-definition. I mean all of the utopias collapsed. Nineteen eighty-nine with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War marks in many respects the symbolic end of the utopian dream, whether the dream of Karl Marx or that of other idealists. I think the aftermath of 1989 and of the whole 20th century is an overweening sense of doubt where we question all of the definitions, we question all of the categories.

I think we're in for a pretty long age of doubt, as a matter of fact. And I would argue that’s a good thing. The certainty that was the 19th century, the certainty that was the age of empire, that certainty produced contempt, it produced arrogance. An age of doubt you can only hope will produce humility and greater tolerance.

UTSC: The cover of your book is very striking. It’s the painting Starry Night above, and Hitler attending a crowded rally below. Despite the positive connotations we have for Van Gogh, for a life of experience, for a celebration of personality, you could also take this as a kind of warning. The breakdown of 19th century authority and categories, well what did it lead to? It led to this horrible 20th century with the rise of Nazism, Stalinism, all of the isms. Does Van Gogh maybe represent a darker side to modern history?

ME: [Laughs] Well, the answer to that rhetorical question of yours is yes. Obviously the darker side is always there. The darker side and the potential of darkness is always there. We must remember that in the end Van Gogh took his own life. One could argue that the great civil war that was the European and World War of the 20th century was a continuation of the darker potential that is in all of us. That potential has not disappeared.

UTSC: Why have you been interested for your whole career in Weimar Germany?

ME: If you were Sigmund Freud and I were on the couch, that might produce some interesting answers. I was born in Europe, I was born in Riga. I was a baby when my family was caught between the German and Russian front lines in August of 1944. We survived that, we became refugees, we lived in Germany in displaced persons camps for four years from 1945 to 1949. We came to Canada in 1949, I as a five year old, and needless to say Germany has played a large role in my early life.

I was always interested in German literature, in German thought. I was interested in the arts. I did a combined undergraduate degree in modern history and modern languages. But the world of literature and the world of history in those undergraduate days of mine never met. I was interested in linking them. In a sense my subsequent career has been to link the arts with a more conventional history. All of my work, all of my books, have been an attempt to do that, including this one.

UTSC: I've read several very complimentary reviews of this book. Have you been happy with the reception it’s gotten?

ME: I won't say that I don't read the reviews. But none of my books have met with early enthusiasm. A couple of my books, one in particular, has gone on to have a rather long life and so I hope that will be the case here as well. But I won't deny that I do like to provoke, I do like to throw out ideas.

I certainly don't believe in history as truth. That is an old idea, an old impulse that again I think we've outgrown. And the idea of history as truth has suffered the same fate that other categories and definitions in the 20th century have suffered. So I enjoy the debate that I hope I have inspired with my various books, and I hope this book will produce a similar kind of debate.

March 06, 2012

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