Solar Dance

Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Solar Dance
    Book Description:

    Art dealer Otto Wacker’s 1932 sensational trial in Berlin for selling fake Van Goghs leads Eksteins to a unique narrative of a collapsing Weimar Germany, the rise of another misfit, Adolf Hitler, and the replacement of nineteenth-century certitude with twentieth-century doubt.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06494-2
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
    (pp. 1-4)

    Vincent van Gogh is the most popular artist of all time. Today he is everywhere: posters of his paintings are on every other student dormitory wall; Singapore and Shanghai banks bear his name; his self-portrait appears on gin and vodka labels; and Australian oilfields borrow from his renown. Yet during his own life he was almost completely neglected. Not only was he neglected, he was despised as both man and artist. How do we begin to explain this turnaround in perception, where the former failure has become our champion?

    If every age chooses its heroes as reflections of its priorities,...

    • VISION The Dance Hall in Arles
      (pp. 7-9)

      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....

    • SKY AGLOW Enclosed Field with Rising Sun
      (pp. 9-13)

      In documents of the 1930s, Otto Wacker was often listed as a Kunstmaler, a painter. Was he a painter? Never seriously, he would say at one point, though he did try his hand at the occasional drawing, woodcut, and design. However, his father painted, as did his older brother and one of his sisters. Otto came from a family of artists—self-taught, self-made. He was born Heinrich Otto Theodor on August 11, 1898, in Düsseldorf to a workingclass family that was artistically inclined to an unusual degree.

      The father, Johann Heinrich (Hans) Wacker, made his living in a variety of...

    • SUN ON SUNS Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers
      (pp. 13-28)

      “... Soufres infernaux, chauds, délétères et aveuglants . . . de torrides disques solaires . . . des atmosphères lourdes, flambantes, cuisantes.” After a page of blistering images—blinding sulphurs, torrid solar disks, fantastic furnaces, flaming cypresses, light and life immolating—Gustave-Albert Aurier concluded, “Such is, without exaggeration . . . the impression left upon the retina at the first sight of the strange, intense, and feverish works of Vincent van Gogh.”¹ Published in January 1890 , Aurier’s own feverish prose was one of the first public appreciations of the Dutch artist who, at the time, was recovering in an...

    • SPRING Blossoming Almond Tree
      (pp. 28-34)

      Initially no one took much notice of Vincent van Gogh’s efforts at painting. His three art-dealing uncles were never sufficiently impressed to consider selling his work. When he moved to Paris his circle of acquaintance widened, and within the small independent Parisian artistic community, his name did become known. As might be expected, his personal eccentricity both attracted and repelled, but we know that Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Émile Bernard, and Paul Gauguin were impressed by some of his paintings. Julien (Père) Tanguy, the old idealistic Communard—“this gentle man of the people,” as the French art critic Théodore...

    • DEALER Portrait of the Art Dealer Alexander Reid
      (pp. 34-41)

      “It is in Germany that Van Gogh was most appreciated,” Théodore Duret would write in 1916.¹ This was an astonishing and courageous statement for a prominent French dealer to make in the midst of a war against Germany. But Duret was right. Present in Paris for an art sale in December 1912, Alfred Lichtwark, the director of the Hamburg Museum, noted German-speakers all around. It was the Germans, he said, who had pushed up the prices of French pictures.² By 1914 Germany did indeed represent the most important market both for French Impressionism and Vincent van Gogh. Many in old...

    • AESTHETE Portrait of Joseph–Michel Ginoux
      (pp. 41-45)

      A friend of Cassirer’s and another of the important promoters of the modern movement in Germany was Count Harry Kessler. In a world riven by social, political, and international divisions, where influence was directly related to power, Kessler would be an intermediary, messenger, and broker. To play this role effectively he had to have both an international reach and a base in every camp. Kessler was an early admirer of Van Gogh, and the latter’s growing international appeal would owe a good deal to Kessler’s efforts at encouraging and publicizing the modern impulse.

      At home in three countries, Germany, Britain,...

    • SCRIBBLER The Sower
      (pp. 45-50)

      Of all the collectors and celebrants of Van Gogh, Julius Meier-Graefe stood apart. His milieu was the emerging world of the modern media: the inexpensive newspaper whose revenues came from advertising rather than subscriptions; the mushrooming book business; and the ever more notable accent on the visual in modern life. It was his enthusiastic publicist efforts, his journalism, and his bestselling books that helped turn Van Gogh from an acclaimed artist into a hero of the modern. Directed initially at Germans, his writing on art would reach an international audience.

      Born in the Banat, a contested border region between Hungary...

    • MADAM L’Arlésienne (Madame Ginoux)
      (pp. 51-53)

      The most compulsive of German collectors of Van Gogh was, however, a woman: Helene Müller, the daughter of a German shipping, mining, and trading magnate. Next to Johanna van Gogh, Helene would assemble the largest collection of Van Gogh work anywhere. Today, housed in a museum near Otterlo, in the middle of the Netherlands, it remains the second largest Van Gogh collection, after that of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

      Helene was the only child of Wilhelm Heinrich Müller, whose company was based in Otto Wacker’s birthplace, Düsseldorf, but also had a branch in the thriving port city of Rotterdam. The...

    • SPIRIT Still Life: Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background
      (pp. 53-59)

      “In the early twentieth century a wind was blowing in Berlin,” recalled the Belgian architect and designer Henry van de Velde in his memoirs.¹ That wind of change could not be confined to Berlin. It reached to Dresden and Munich, where likeminded artists joined together to promote what one of their number, Wassily Kandinsky, called “the spiritual in art.” In 1911 the art historian Wilhelm Worringer was the first to apply the term Expressionism to a new tendency “in which mind declares its autonomy over the experience of nature.” Expressionism represented a spiritual rebellion against science, materialism, and law. Emerging...

    • STORM Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear
      (pp. 59-63)

      The outbreak of war brought an emotional outpouring of staggering dimension. Never has more poetry been penned than in those heady early days of war. Never have more hymns been sung. Many looked on the conflict as more than a military confrontation. They saw it as a spiritual event, a climactic all-enveloping moment—a fusion of nation, culture, and purpose. “Each one was called upon to cast his infinitesimal self into the glowing mass,” wrote Stefan Zweig, “there to be purified of all selfishness.”¹ Ernst Barlach compared the mood to being madly in love.²

      Long anticipated, the war evoked elemental...

    • PHANTASMS The Night Café in the Place Lamartine in Arles
      (pp. 63-70)

      As the real war on the ground turned in the course of 1915–16 into a devastating and enervating war of attrition, the very antithesis of purity, some soldiers developed a whole new range of metaphor to describe it: muck heap, meat grinder, cesspool. Yet, as disillusionment threatened individual sensibility, in public quarters, and especially on the home front, images of innocence and propriety intensified. The soldier became a Christ figure, a martyr for humanity. In this crisis, without apparent issue or solution, imagination polarized. The war turned into phantasmagoria.

      For a good number of combatants on the fighting and...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • WINDS Olive Trees: Bright Blue Sky
      (pp. 73-82)

      With the collapse of the Second Reich in early November 1918, the declaration of a German Republic on November 9, and the riotous turmoil that accompanied military defeat and political transition, intellectuals of all stripes were drawn willy-nilly into public affairs. Paul Cassirer joined the Independent Socialists, the adamantly anti-war wing of socialism that had broken with the main party in April 1917. He now published ever more writers and theorists of the left, among them Rudolf Hilferding, Karl Kautsky, and Rudolf Breitscheid. In Munich, where Cassirer and Tilla Durieux would soon reside, poets and artists became directly involved in...

    • FEVER The Drinkers (after Daumier)
      (pp. 82-88)

      With essence eviscerated, what remained? Tanzwut—dance fever—that’s what. In this milieu of movement and fragment, dance, both artistic and social, turned into a prominent metaphor of life. In the 1920s everyone danced. The Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, Munich’s major newspaper, referred to the “dance plague” that had come to afflict the culture. When Klaus Mann tried in his memoirs to explain the political and economic turmoil of that decade, he resorted repeatedly to images of dance. “The stock market danced. The members of the Reichstag hopped about. . . . Cripples, war profiteers, film stars and prostitutes, retired monarchs...

    • SODOMIA Les Peiroulets Ravine
      (pp. 88-93)

      If Laban, Wigman, and Gert represented dance as an intellectual challenge, the revue theatres and nightclubs stood at the other end of the spectrum. After the Great War, Berlin became a beacon of sensuality. Its nightlife, already vibrant before the war, now took on dimensions that made other European capitals look positively prudish—even those known previously for their licentious daring. Article 118 of the Weimar constitution, drafted in 1919 and ratified by the National Assembly in August of that year, stated that there would be no censorship. Though amended later, that article opened the floodgates to a cultural liberality...

    • SUN CHILD The Garden of Saint–Paul Hospital
      (pp. 93-96)

      After all the violence inflicted on the human body in the Great War, that body was celebrated in the postwar world. After the nightmare of the trenches, the body became the focal point of a renaissance, an affirmation of life. Mary Wigman, it was said, made art out of her own body.¹ When Josephine Baker danced at the Folies-Bergère, her sublime figure was reflected and multiplied in endless mirrors and lights. “All around us,” remarked one observer, “we had thousands of Josephines, reflections and shadows, dancing.”² In his famous 1929 piece in Der Querschnitt titled “The Charm of Berlin,” Harold...

    • SHOWTIME Vincent’s House in Arles (The Yellow House)
      (pp. 96-98)

      Otto Wacker sensed very well the direction of these postwar cultural winds. He would live the transgressive essence of Weimar to the full. Survivor of poverty, vagabond in life, he took up Argentine and Spanish dance with its exotic passion and tragic innuendo. Simultaneously he developed a more serious interest in a career on the stage. His father was a self-taught painter, and Otto a self-taught dancer. He devised a stage name for himself, Olindo (later Olinto) Lovaël, and, together with his sister, Luise, set about performing “old Spanish dances” (altspanische Tänze). He partnered Luise at the outset, then her...

    • PALACE REVOLUTION The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles
      (pp. 98-105)

      The political upheavals in Germany at the end of the war, as military defeat forced a reconsideration of all assumptions, engulfed the public world of art as well. At the National Gallery in Berlin a drama played out that was every bit as exciting as that at the Imperial Palace just down the street, where on November 9, 1918, the royal family packed up and left, driving by motor car into exile in Holland. While some had been suggesting that he head for the war front and find himself a bullet, the kaiser was in no mood for romantic gestures....

    • STORIES Portrait of Doctor Gachet
      (pp. 105-113)

      In Germany in the 1920s, in an emergent celebrity culture avant la lettre, biography as a literary form became all the rage. That most perceptive interpreter of popular culture Siegfried Kracauer, the journalist, film critic, and intellectual extraordinaire, called biography the “art form of the new bourgeoisie,”¹ of that social grouping—the clerks, managers, and service personnel—disgorged by the second phase of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the past century. Friedrich Gundolf’s Goethe (1916), Ernst Bertram’s Nietzsche (1918), Berthold Vallentin’s Napoleon (1923), Ernst Kantorowicz’s Kaiser Friedrich II (1927), Friedrich Wolters’s Stefan George (1930), as well as an...

    • SAILOR BOY Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles
      (pp. 113-116)

      In Otto Wacker’s file in the German Dance Archive in Cologne, one of the tributes to “Olinto Lovaël,” Wacker’s stage name, stands out strikingly. It is a rhapsodic description supposedly from an undated letter by Julius Meier-Graefe to Paul Cassirer. Lovaël’s dance is compared to the art of Vincent van Gogh! “The same genial improvisation of a Vincent van Gogh is to be found in his art. . . . Olinto is a dancing relative of El Greco. . . . One senses the darkness of Rembrandt. His creativity is enormous. No flirting with technique. Everything is fluid and convincing....

    • CERTIFIERS Portrait of Patience Escalier
      (pp. 116-124)

      Otto Wacker sold the first lot of these new Van Goghs without any indication of provenance, where an artwork came from and who owned it over time. He told the dealer Hugo Perls, who in 1925 acquired Cypresses (F 616), a swirling fusion of trees, rocks, and suns, that revealing his source would endanger his whole enterprise, for other dealers would immediately descend on it. Perls seemed to understand. Secrecy was normal practice if more than one item was to be sold from a collection.¹ When Wacker began to sell a second lot, however, another of his buyers objected to...

    • CAVEAT EMPTOR Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans
      (pp. 124-127)

      The Wacker trove was snatched up, as authentications put minds at ease. The provenance for all these works was given simply as “Collection privée suisse.” Wacker was no fringe creature. With his double-breasted three-piece suits and pocket handkerchief, he cut a fine figure and exhibited a gentle, self-deprecating manner. He knew important people. Curt Glaser, the director of the State Art Library and arts critic for the Berliner Börsen-Courier, introduced him to Hugo Perls, and the dealer then included Cypresses (F 616) in his Impressionist show as early as 1925. Julius Elias wrote the introduction to the catalogue. A friend...

    • FAME Cypresses
      (pp. 127-131)

      In 1927, pulsing with profit, Otto Wacker moved from his tiny quarters in the Zimmerstrasse and set up shop in the Viktoriastrasse, in the heart of the gallery and embassy district. He was just around the corner from the humming Potsdamer Platz, which claimed to be the busiest intersection in the world. Traffic, human and motorized, from six streets and a train station emptied into the famous square, with a policeman trying to control the congestion from a tower in the middle. The district had no slum housing; on the contrary, rents were steep.¹ Wacker paid 3,000 marks a month...

    • SOURCE The Painter on His Way to Work
      (pp. 131-134)

      As Otto Wacker told his story, it was while dancing at the Blüthner-Saal in Berlin in the winter of 1923–24 that he had been approached by a visiting Russian who came to see him in his dressing room. They hit it off. The Russian, said Wacker, echoing the mantra of all aesthetes, loved everything beautiful. They became fast friends. They met often at the Hotel Esplanade on Unter den Linden, where they dined. When someone mentioned a homosexual relationship, Wacker did not protest. The young Russian émigré lived, according to Wacker, in southern Switzerland, where he had fled after...

    • ALARUM Still Life with French Novels and a Rose
      (pp. 134-138)

      It was Grete Ring and Walter Feilchenfeldt, the new owners of the Cassirer gallery and Wacker’s partners on their mutual Van Gogh project, who raised the alarm. As they unpacked the six pictures that their neighbour Otto Wacker had sent over to them in preparation for their major exhibition of Van Gogh paintings due to open on January 15, 1928, Feilchenfeldt paused. “These are fakes,” he said first to himself and then to his colleague. Comparing the items—Boats at Saintes-Maries (F 418), Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (F 527a), Zouave (F 539), Haystacks (F 625a), Sower (F 691), and Cypresses...

    • ALEXANDERPLATZ Paul Gauguin’s Armchair
      (pp. 138-141)

      In the course of that year, 1928, Jacob-Baart de la Faille was in constant contact with Otto Wacker, pressing, urging, begging him to reveal his secrets. Instead of opening up, the dancer-dealer withdrew, and the warm friendship between the two men dissolved into acrimony. De la Faille informed Wacker that for the sake of his own reputation, he had to make a public announcement—and it would not be favourable.

      Wacker responded by threatening legal action but then disappeared from the Berlin scene. In November he surfaced in Holland. To the chagrin of the Berlin police, who had finally moved...

    • COUP Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night
      (pp. 141-148)

      At the very moment the Wacker affair was breaking, Ludwig Justi managed to give the scandal a sensational backdrop. He arranged for the display in Berlin’s National Gallery of the Kröller-Müller collection of Van Gogh paintings. Justi was to claim later that the exhibition had long been planned, but the exchange of letters between him and Helene Kröller-Müller in 1928 indicates that the arrangements were rushed and the timing was dictated by Justi’s mounting involvement in the Wacker contretemps.

      The Wm H. Müller Company had flourished during the war, when the firm was uniquely placed in neutral Holland to benefit...

    • SURREALITY Crab on Its Back
      (pp. 148-152)

      Shortly after his interrogation on December 2, where he was fully cooperative but unflinching in his story, Otto Wacker travelled to Paris and then on to Switzerland in search, so he claimed, of the Russian. However, his source had apparently decamped for foreign lands—Egypt, it was said. The Berlin police stepped up their investigation, assembling as many of the dubious pictures as possible and housing them with Ludwig Justi at the National Gallery. Jacob-Baart de la Faille was interviewed at length while he was in Berlin for the Kröller-Müller exhibition. In turn, Kriminalkommissar J.A. Thomas of the Berlin police...

    • SENSATION Self-Portrait
      (pp. 152-157)

      Otto Wacker’s career as an art dealer had blossomed in those few years in the mid-1920s when the German economy finally began to look up from the thraldom of war and inflation. By 1928, however, the recovery had slowed. A speculative frenzy on Wall Street promised far greater returns than any loan to Germany, and American investors withdrew their monies from Europe. The stock-market crash in New York in October 1929 darkened the already threatening sky. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gustav Stresemann, and Serge Diaghilev died that year. “One piece after another of the world, as I and my generation knew...

    • RAVENS Vincent’s Chair with His Pipe
      (pp. 157-161)

      By the time the Depression hit Europe and especially Germany with its devastating force, Jacob-Baart de la Faille and Julius Meier-Graefe, who for years had cooperated in matters relating to Van Gogh, had become bitter enemies, each claiming to have been the first to harbour doubts about the Wacker pictures.¹ If De la Faille had doubts at the time of the Cassirer exhibition in January 1928, why did he not reveal them then? asked Meier-Graefe. The only sure proof of authenticity was unequivocal provenance, he argued; style proved nothing. De la Faille responded that Meier-Graefe was “an excellent but fickle...

    • EVIDENCE Still Life: Blue Enamel Coffeepot, Earthenware and Fruit
      (pp. 161-166)

      To many in the art community, the evidence against Wacker appeared compelling, but the police and the state prosecutor were still not convinced that they could proceed successfully. To make their case the prosecution would have, first, to prove that the art was fake by locating its source and, second, to assemble evidence that Wacker knowingly disseminated fraudulent art. The bar for the prosecution was high, as Wacker no doubt realized.

      Van Gogh had been sloppy in his life and his work. Much of his output had gone astray, in Holland and also in Arles. The artist’s peripatetic existence and...

    • CELA N’EST PAS . . . Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin)
      (pp. 166-166)

      By 1932 Otto Wacker, who said he loved beautiful things, was in deep financial difficulty. But so was Count Harry Kessler, who also loved beautiful things. Kessler had squandered his inheritance, and for several years now he had been begging his sister in France, Wilma, the marquise de Brion, for assistance. In an attempt to summon sympathy he told her that he was thinking of selling his extensive collection of art: “Of course I intend to sell the Cézanne and the Renoir as soon as somebody offers me a decent and normal price. They are worth 100,000 marks each under...

    • PRESENT SENSE Still Life with Bloaters and Garlic
      (pp. 169-171)

      Since the spring of 1930, the German parliament had been dysfunctional: a majority government could not be formed, and radicalism was on the rise. Street battles between Communists and Nazis raged. Normal fiscal legislation, allowing the state to function, had to be signed into law using Article 48, the Weimar constitution’s emergency clause that assigned executive power to the Reich president. That presidential office was now pivotal in the political process.

      The president was elected by popular vote—and new elections were due early in 1932. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the incumbent, ran again, not entirely willingly. Eighty-four years...

    • SEANCE Spectators in the Arena at Arles
      (pp. 171-172)

      In this febrile atmosphere of relentless tension—political, social, and intellectual—the trial of Otto Wacker opened on Wednesday, April 6, 1932, a few days before the German presidential runoff vote.

      The venue was the oath courtroom in the lay assessors’ court of central Berlin.¹ Solid barriers divided the hall into protagonists and spectators. Judges, lawyers, defendant, and witnesses were seated at the front, with the audience cramped behind in the small gallery. Not one seat remained empty. The headline in the Vossische Zeitung later that day read, “Massendrang zum van Gogh-Prozess”—“massive crush at the Van Gogh trial.” The...

    • SCRIPTS Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin
      (pp. 173-179)

      The trial was held under the direction of Landgerichtsdirektor (state court director) Dr. Neumann.¹ The judge cut an impressive image, “very business-like and dignified,” in the words of one reporter.² The courtroom, in the central Moabit district of Berlin, just to the north of the Tiergarten park, looked more like an art gallery than a legal venue. Sixteen paintings were displayed at the front of the room, all without frames. These Wacker paintings would be passed around from hand to hand as necessary among the expert witnesses. One spectator remarked on the “startling masses of colour in the otherwise dark...

    • SEQUENCE Harvest in Provence
      (pp. 179-186)

      The next day, Thursday, April 7, proceedings began at 10 a.m. The correspondent for the NRC reported that the interest in the case was “even greater than that shown yesterday”; the courtroom was “completely packed.”¹ Everyone seemed to be waiting for some explosive revelation. Art, money, love, international intrigue, and transgression—all the ingredients for a fabulous story were present. Reporters and the public remained on tenterhooks.

      That morning Otto Wacker continued his testimony. He had brought with him some of his woodcuts as well as a poster from his days as a dancer. At the very outset he was...

    • ETCETERA Wheat Field with Sheaves
      (pp. 186-191)

      By the third day of the trial, Friday, the eighth, the thrill of the event was gone. The correspondent for the NRC was already jaded; he found that the proceedings had become too detailed to remain interesting. In the morning the police officials who had investigated the case were heard, Detective Dr. Heinrich Uelzen and Detective Superintendent J.A. Thomas. They testified that already in early 1928 they had been investigating foreign press reports about art forgeries surfacing in the Rhineland and Hamburg.

      This investigation had dovetailed with the Wacker case when it broke later that year. Kriminalrat Uelzen said he...

    • PLUS ÇA CHANGE . . . Street in Saintes–Maries
      (pp. 191-194)

      The trial resumed on Monday morning, April 11. The Moabit courtroom was again full. Second in the day’s parade was the witness many had been waiting for, Jacob-Baart de la Faille, the potential star in this comedic enterprise— fifteen experts in search of an artist—more preposterous than any Luigi Pirandello concoction. The Italian’s absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Author had been a succès de scandale on the stages of Europe since 1922. As recently as March 18, Vincent Willem van Gogh had expressed his support of De la Faille, thanking him in a written statement for...

    • APPRECIATION Portrait of Père Tanguy
      (pp. 195-198)

      The next witness was the effervescent and controversial Julius Meier-Graefe, the sixty-four-year-old author of three books about Van Gogh and authority on modern art in general. Although still writing for the German press, he was living in the south of France. The German art wars and two difficult marriages had taken their toll; in 1930 he had moved house with his young third wife to Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, just west of Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. There the summer heat was torrid but nowhere near as debilitating as the figurative furnace that was the Berlin art world.

      Meier-Graefe revealed to the court...

    • EXPERTS A Pair of Leather Clogs
      (pp. 198-200)

      On Tuesday, the twelfth, the expert witnesses testified. But many of the material witnesses returned. Meier-Graefe’s humiliation continued.

      Ivan Goldschmidt: What value does authentication have anyway? Meier-Graefe: Precious little. People who buy pictures on the basis of authentication alone deserve to be cheated.


      Hans Rosenhagen, too, was recalled. Meekly he proclaimed “limited knowledge” of the work of Van Gogh. Nevertheless, this expert with limited knowledge still considered six paintings genuine. Seven others that he had authenticated he now considered fakes.¹

      H.P. Bremmer was asked, “Do you know any Dutch painters who could copy Van Gogh in a masterly manner?”...

    • PROOF Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey
      (pp. 200-203)

      On the thirteenth, the Wednesday of the second week, the scientists appeared. Cornelis M. Garnier, the head of Utrecht’s criminal identification service and a specialist in dactyloscopy, the science of fingerprinting, was called first. He reported that at the request of Willem Scherjon, he had examined Two Poplars (F 639) and found a fingerprint that matched traces of prints found on undeniable Van Gogh works in the Kröller-Müller collection.

      Garnier’s testimony produced a reaction in the courtroom. Newspaper reporters scribbled furiously in their notepads. Was this the deciding evidence for the authenticity of the Two Poplars and for much of...

    • SOUL The Iris
      (pp. 203-204)

      That same Wednesday the practising artists were invited, by defence and prosecution, respectively, to give opinion. Who should be called by the defence but Eugen Spiro, the first husband of Tilla Durieux! After being humiliated by Durieux and cuckolded by Paul Cassirer, he had moved to Paris, where he lived and worked until 1914. After the war he re-emerged as a fixture of the Berlin art scene, acceding eventually to the presidency of the Berlin Secession, a position that Cassirer also once held. The cross-currents were many. Spiro had even produced a fine portrait of Julius Meier-Graefe, one of Wacker’s...

    • SUMMATIONS Les Alyscamps
      (pp. 205-207)

      At long last, on Friday, the fifteenth, the proceedings wound down. State prosecutor Alexander Kanthack gave his summation. His speech lasted for an hour and a half. He drew attention to the bizarre nature of the trial, a courtroom turned into an improvised art gallery in which genuine Van Goghs looked like “jewels” compared with the “glass splinters” that were the fakes. Experts had come from the south of France and from Holland to give evidence and opinion. These experts had approached their subject from both technical and critical standpoints. In the case of eleven of the sixteen works displayed...

    • SENTENCE Ward in the Hospital in Arles
      (pp. 208-210)

      The verdict came on Tuesday, the nineteenth. Not everybody stayed until the end. Meier-Graefe could not bear the shame and slipped off to his home in the south of France days before the judgment was delivered. When his closest friend, Julius Levin, tried to get in touch with him, he received a note from Meier-Graefe’s assistant. “Dear Herr Levin,” it read, “Ju[lius] left some days ago. He didn’t wait for the end. The affair cost him too much time and trouble.”¹ That was a gentle way of saying that Meier-Graefe had not been able to stomach any more of the...

    • APPEAL Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse)
      (pp. 210-218)

      Ivan Goldschmidt promptly launched an appeal. On the promise that he would report to the police twice weekly, Wacker was released.

      If the NRC correspondent lost interest in the details of the trial early on, it seemed that the rest of the world did too. Beyond the German and the Dutch press, coverage after the first few days had been sporadic and brief; even the verdict received little notice. That, however, was less an indication of a lack of public interest than of a lack of clear direction in the trial. The narrative line seemed simply to peter out, like...

    • SYNONYMS Prisoners Exercising (after Doré)
      (pp. 221-224)

      Otto Wacker went to jail. His lawyer promised to launch a further appeal to the highest court in the land, but the Supreme Court in Leipzig refused to hear the case. On January 30, 1933, another artist, who said that the subject of his canvas was not just some olive grove or almond tree but Germany and the world, became Reich chancellor. As Wacker languished in Gefängnis Tegel, the prison in the northwestern district of Berlin, Adolf Hitler began to reshape the Reich. His political art had all the authenticity of Wacker’s Van Gogh paintings. He had rummaged through the...

    • SYMBOL Undergrowth with Two Figures
      (pp. 224-228)

      Who painted the Wacker pictures? No definitive answer to that question has ever been provided. No one accepts them as legitimate any longer, but no one has actually proved that they were fakes by identifying their source. Both Otto’s father, Hans, and his brother, Leonhard, were able artists, with local and some national recognition, so may have been capable of producing them. Some see in the father’s brush technique, in work from as early as 1914, similarities with Van Gogh, though Leonhard is the more likely candidate.¹ He participated in the annual Düsseldorf art exhibition—Große Kunstausstellung Düsseldorf—in 1920,...

    • SOPHIENSTRASSE Death’s–Head Moth
      (pp. 229-233)

      Otto Wacker served not only his one-year-seven-month sentence in prison but an extra three hundred days for the 30,000-mark fine—the price at the time of a lesser Van Gogh—that he had been required to pay but could not. He was released on December 4, 1935.¹ His sensations on liberation may have been similar to those of Franz Biberkopf, the anti-hero of Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, who had served a four-year sentence in the same prison for beating his girlfriend to death: “He stood before the gate of Tegel prison and was free.” Free? Hardly. Instead of revelling...

    • REAPER Daubigny’s Garden
      (pp. 233-239)

      Ludwig Justi’s assault on Otto Wacker, Julius Meier-Graefe, and the phalanx of Dutch collectors and critics had deeply paradoxical repercussions. While Justi, the official grand master of the German gallery world, was lamenting the amateurism of art expertise in Holland and Germany, his own abilities were called into serious question. In the process, the Weimar Republic lost even more credibility. Here again, events in the art community seemed to correspond to the fate of the Weimar bureaucratic and political order in general.

      The Dutch circle of Van Gogh experts had been incensed by Justi’s audacity in the Wacker affair. He,...

    • NIGHT LIGHT Starry Night
      (pp. 239-244)

      For some people, Hitler’s takeover of power in Germany in February and March 1933 demanded critical decisions. Thomas Mann was abroad when Hitler was appointed chancellor on January 30 and refused to return home. Others, such as the journalist and cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer, sensed a noose tightening around their necks in those first months of 1933 and felt forced to flee, in some cases for their lives, to Paris, or Prague, or London. “The whole of the Kurfürstendamm is emptying out in Paris,” noted Harry Kessler in his diary in late June 1933.¹ But some, like the artist Emil...

    • STUDIO SANARY Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)
      (pp. 244-248)

      Just as Vincent van Gogh had headed to Provence in search of peace and inspiration, so many of the protagonists in the German Van Gogh story sought refuge in the south of France. The little fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer became the magnet. It lies west of Toulon, beyond the smart Riviera coast. Sanary was no Antibes or Beaulieu, let alone Cannes or Nice. It was off the route nationale, in a quiet corner of the brilliant Mediterranean. Painters had found sanctuary there early in the century. Writers came later.

      Julius Meier-Graefe had moved to Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, some twelve kilometres from Sanary,...

    • CRIME SCENE Landscape with Snow
      (pp. 248-256)

      When Stephen Spender arrived in Hamburg in 1929 to visit his friend Erich Alport, scion of a distinguished merchant family, he was transfixed, as his thinly disguised autobiographical novel The Temple Areveals, by the paintings in the Alport home—works by Picasso, Derain, and Van Gogh, among others.¹ The Van Gogh was most likely Restaurant de la Sirène at Asnières (F 312), which Erich’s mother, Valerie, had recently acquired from the Matthiesen gallery. When the Alports fled to Britain in 1937 they took their Van Gogh with them, and it was eventually bequeathed to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. A number of...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • MENDER The Road Menders
      (pp. 259-262)

      After the First World War, Van Gogh was associated with the agony of existential doubt. His brilliance had been his affirmative creativity in the context of debilitating misgivings. His mood was thought to correspond with the postwar German mood. Three decades later, after the unimaginable devastation of the Second World War, in which somewhere between fifty and seventy-five million human beings perished, in which all distinctions between civilians and soldiers, the permissible and the impossible, the imaginable and the unfathomable seemed to disappear, Van Gogh’s life and work were seen to overlap with a much wider mindset. He was adopted...

    • SCHEHEREZADE Still Life: Potatoes in a Yellow Dish
      (pp. 262-268)

      Art, along with everything else, got caught up in the politics of the Cold War. The divisions ran, once again, right through Germany. Was it poetic justice that Berlin’s gallery district, just off the Potsdamer Platz, had been blown to smithereens by the RAF’s Bomber Command and the advancing Red Army, and then, as relations between the occupying powers deteriorated, turned into a no-man’s land of barbed wire, searchlights, and watchtowers? The glamour and fervour of an earlier age gave way to the metallic chill of abstract dogma.

      Otto Wacker had survived the war years living with his brother-in-law Erich...

    • WALL Skull
      (pp. 269-274)

      As the twentieth century advanced, with shattering effect, anyone involved with art in a creative, appreciative, or administrative capacity could not avoid the influence of Vincent van Gogh. But those artists most attuned to the all-pervasive and inescapable mood of crisis absorbed and reflected his influence most directly. Van Gogh had a huge impact on the pre-1914 German Expressionists, and then on the entire cultural milieu of the 1920s. In the post-1945 world the stimulus from his work and life penetrated all realms of endeavour even more. In 1957 the Irish-born artist Francis Bacon, known for his bold and vividly...

    • OUR WEIMAR The State Lottery Office
      (pp. 275-278)

      The Weimar experience used to be considered peculiar to Germany, a lesson to the rest of the world how not to think, feel, and live. Weimar was dismissed as a failure—politically without question, but also culturally, because it, like Van Gogh and Otto Wacker, lacked moderation. That was certainly the gist of the early commentary on Weimar. As the twentieth century unfolded, however, it became apparent that the Weimar experience, like Van Gogh’s and Wacker’s, had been but a prelude to the broader Western story. The disenchantment that overwhelmed Germany in the wake of the Great War had subsequently...

    • MANIA The White Orchard
      (pp. 279-282)

      Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold for US$135 million in June 2006. Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust fetched US$106.5 million in May 2010. But the record for the twentieth century belongs to Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which sold in May 1990 for $82.5 million. Before that, the bar had been set by his Irises ($53.9 million, in November 1987) and by a version of the Sunflowers ($39.9 million, in March 1987). While at the beginning of the new century, the twenty-first, the British art world was voting Marcel Duchamp’s mischievously, modified urinal, Fountain, the most influential...

  9. EPILOGUE Memory of the Garden at Etten
    (pp. 283-284)

    In June 2009 the journalist Margot Cohen, of the Wall Street Journal, interviewed the Indonesian actor-comedian Butet Kartaredjasa, well known in his homeland for his audacious spoofs on authority and also for his extensive art collection. The latter consists largely of Indonesian work.

    “Have you collected any works by foreign artists?” Cohen asks.

    “Van Gogh!” the comedian replies, pointing to a copy of Memory of the Garden at Etten. “This is from Canada, where they have a technology of reproduction that I admire very much. Look at these strokes, the texture. If I have any businessmen friends who come over,...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 285-320)
  11. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Farmhouse in Provence
    (pp. 321-324)
    (pp. 325-326)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 327-342)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 343-345)