An artist for anxious times

Kurt Kleiner
Modris Eksteins

Author Modris Eksteins.

That Vincent van Gogh was a failure during his lifetime is not merely an irony, according to Modris Eksteins, UTSC history professor emeritus; it’s central to his appeal to us in the modern world.
“[He] was a complete failure in terms of the 19th century,” says Eksteins, whose new book—Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age—tells how the Dutch painter’s popularity was fuelled posthumously by modernist-art enthusiasm in Weimar Germany. The book has been well reviewed in Canada and the U.S.
Destitute, alone and unknown, van Gogh, who eventually killed himself, is a modern-day hero precisely because of his rejection of society and its rejection of him, says Eksteins. The 19th century valued structure, order and convention, and as the 20th century began celebrating originality and individuality, along with personal experiences and emotions, it adopted van Gogh as its hero.
“We like to think that the van Gogh story is about overcoming—overcoming social stricture, disapproval, rejection,” writes Eksteins in Solar Dance. “It may be, more precisely, about the fear of not overcoming.”