On van Gogh, history, truth and certainty

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First aired on Ideas (3/4/12)

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Who hasn't seen Vincent van Gogh's fiery portraits, his blazing suns, his glowing landscapes? On posters, on college walls, on calendars, on album covers, on vodka bottles — almost everywhere — these pictures have become part of our cultural landscape. Or, at least, that's what imminent historian and longtime University of Toronto professor Modris Eksteins says. Eksteins calls van Gogh "the most famous artist of all time" in Solar Dance, his new book about the artist. It tells the story of van Gogh, but is also about so much more. Solar Dances is about a sensational forgery scandal, and asks readers to consider the idea of truth and certainty in history and the modern age.

What makes van Gogh such a fascinating subject is the apparent contradiction between his life and work. The Dutch post-impressionist painter only sold one painting in his lifetime. It wasn't until after his death in 1890 that his work began to achieve acclaim and become coveted in art circles. "He was an absolutely miserable failure," Eksteins points out. And not just in a professional sense. "In every sense." Throughout his short life, van Gogh struggled with mental illness and had difficulty maintaining relationships. "He hurt everybody. He hurt his family. He hurt his father. He hurt his brother. He hurt every woman who came close to him, and, in the end, of course, he hurt himself most of all by taking his own life."

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Yet, through all those struggles, van Gogh produced extraordinary, colourful art that seemingly contradicts the life of the man behind it. And that's why van Gogh's work resonates even today. "Van Gogh, this miserable creative in many ways, was nevertheless able to producer this luminous art that was so striking," Eksteins says. "It's that process of doubt, of anxiety, of anguish, but within which life remains, self assertion remains, that became so attractive."

The first people to become attracted to it were the Germans, around the same time as the First World War. In From there, van Gogh's reputation grew internationally. In 1990, one of his paintings, a portrait of Dr. Gachet, his friend and doctor, sold for $82.5 million. Eksteins explores it all in Solar Dance. He discusses his book, van Gogh's work and Germany's role in cementing his place in history in his conversation with Paul Kennedy in the audio clip above.