Last week, the new touring exhibition of Van Gogh's works on nature, "Van Gogh: Up Close", came to the National Gallery of Canada. It is expected to be the absolute blockbuster of the summer, following on the mega crowds it drew over the winter in Philadelphia.
What is it about Van Gogh that transfixes us? The paintings, for sure. His weirdly compelling life, yes. But there has to be more to it. In a new book, Solar Dance, Modris Eksteins argues that to understand Van Gogh, and our reaction to his work, is to understand the cultural warp and political weft of the 20th century. It is to understand the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich, the birth of the counterculture and the death of communism, and—not least of all—the great flourishing of celebrity culture and our obsession with the who of art, not the what. In sum, Eksteins writes: “Van Gogh is ours. We are Van Gogh.”
I review Eksteins' book in the new issue of the Literary Review of Canada.
Here is Peter Simpson of the Ottawa Citizen giving his own take on why we remain obsessed with Van Gogh.
And here is professor Eksteins himself, writing inthe Citizen about Van Gogh's "extraordinary afterlife."