Solar Dance

By Modris Eksteins

In 1989 University of Toronto history professor Modris Eksteins published a terrific book called Rites of Spring which was about the aestheticization of European politics around the time of the First World War, using as a hook the story of the impresario Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes. Solar Dance reiterates the same themes and can be seen as a sort of long-delayed sequel, focusing on Germany in the Weimar years and taking as its main subject one Otto Wacker, a mysterious art world figure who briefly made a name for himself selling paintings he fraudulently attributed to Vincent Van Gogh.

But what worked so well in Rites of Spring isn’t quite as successful here. Wacker was an obscure, marginal figure at best, and Ekstein’s argument that Weimar culture was the great nursery, not just of the modern age but for pretty much everything politically and culturally that came after, is strained. Van Gogh is great, but it’s arguable that he was the defining artist of our time. And while Wacker was a semi-interesting character, when you get right down to it he was just a guy running a scam, and his story has no meaningful parallel with Hitler’s rise or the development of quantum physics. His case didn’t expose a “crisis of truth” so much as it exploited the culture of greed taking over the art market at the time, and embarrassed a bunch of “experts” who had to scramble to cover their backsides when things fell apart.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that Eksteins was just trying to do too much. Even the packaging is revealing: a poster of Joseph Stalin and a photo of Leni Riefenstahl are prominent on the dustjacket and in the illustrations included in the book itself, but there is only one brief reference to Riefenstahl in the text, and no mention of Stalin. It’s as though all the stuff Eksteins was trying to get in didn’t fit.

Most cultural history paints with a broad brush, and the big ideas Eksteins addresses – how art became a religion in the twentieth century, how politics became theatre, and how objectivity was replaced by subjectivity, rationality by spirit – are nicely represented by the story he tells. That story, however, is not the whole story. The modern age had many different parents, and many children too.

Review first published February 18, 2012.