He's been called "the poster boy for geniuses." Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch artist who painted blazing suns and starry nights, is ever present on student dormitory walls, vodka labels, T-shirts, designer cups, even banks in Singapore and Shanghai that bear his name

Approaching the 160th anniversary of his birth (next March), the old boy is still making headlines.

Just recently, plant biologists have identified the gene responsible for a double flower mutation in his vividly yellow sunflower series.

The colour selection, it turns out, was not merely van Gogh's artistic fancy (or alleged mental illness) but a sharp eye for a mutant variety, perhaps fitting for a troubled idiosyncratic genius who cut off his own ear and committed suicide at the age of 37.

As for the suicide, well, that's in dispute now, too. Two biographers, appearing on CBS's 60 Minutes, claim the artist was actually killed by a local teen, the younger brother of an acquaintance, who liked to provoke van Gogh to anger.

In an age where cool irony so often reigns, van Gogh's passionate intensity still has legions of admirers. (Remember the 1956 movie Lust for Life in which Kirk Douglas, playing the tortured van Gogh, places his hand over a fire to prove a point.)

In fact, the Canadian historian Modris Eksteins asserts in his new book Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, that van Gogh is the most popular artist of all time — despite the fact that he only sold one painting in his own lifetime.

The claim is based not only on the fact that reproductions of van Gogh's paintings, including his self-portraits, are so omnipresent, but that his very existence has become a magnet for meaning.

The crisis of uncertainty

For someone who spent most of his last two years in an asylum, and lived the rest of his life alone and feeling rejected, it can seem a little strange, even Eksteins allows, that van Gogh has somehow been transformed into such an icon of redemption.

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A van Gogh self-portrait, always handled with care, at least today. (Reuters)

Today, the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam receives about 1.6 million visitors annually, with new shows almost every year.

One of his paintings fetched $82.5 million, and one from the Sunflowers series sold for almost $40 million.

The symbolism of this renounced and tumultuous individual restored to a life of almost God-like lustre is not lost on anyone. In fact it is a story that appeals to a culture steeped in living and rising gods, whether in Christianity or on our celebrity channels.

In his newest book, Eksteins, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Toronto and the author of the celebrated 1989 book, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, returns to his theme of the loss of authority in our contemporary world and the crisis of uncertainty.

Solar Dance has a painting of Van Gogh's swirling night sky on its cover and beneath it stands Hitler, before cheering legions of saluting youth.  

On the spine, Luftwaffe fighters fly in a tight swastika formation, celebrating the might of Nazi Germany.

Another disappointed artist

So what does this tormented artist have to do with the Third Reich?

Well, Eksteins traces how van Gogh became immensely popular in a devastated Europe following the First World War and how German artists and writers of that period were particularly intrigued.

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Van Gogh and Hitler, what could they possibly have in common? (Random House Canada)

For them, his work spoke to the disharmony of the era and its yearning for a greater truth, which, it was feared, had been lost forever.

Eksteins, however, doesn't make his case as a scrupulous historian would. He works more by association and poetic observation, as you can hear in this recent interview on CBC Radio's Ideas.

One of his observations is that van Gogh's situation was similar to that of another renounced loner, the forlorn corporal Adolph Hitler, a failed artist who transformed himself into a madman fuehrer (instead of a mad artistic genius).

Eksteins' bigger theme, though, is the undermining of authority, and he uses the case of a spectacular forgery trial in Weimar Germany, just before Hitler came to power in 1933, to illustrate his point.

At the time, an oddball cabaret performer and art dealer named Otto Wacker sold numerous purported van Goghs, which were becoming increasingly popular and which had been authenticated by experts.

But the paintings were subsequently discovered to be fakes, which left the buyers fleeced and the experts fooled.

For Eksteins, the affair was symbolic of an age where authority pronounces but its credibility can disappear like smoke in the air. 

Worlds of uncertainty

Does this not sound like our world today, with its many so-called experts? We've all read and seen enough of them to be constantly vigilant.

But what Eksteins is saying is that this is what van Gogh also symbolizes — today's modern society of changing gods and standards where no one can tell what truth or beauty really is; a place of baffling contingency where we yearn for the surety of "expert opinion," even as we remain skeptical of authority in general.

In his book, Eksteins keeps playing with the meanings you can take from van Gogh's life.

The Dutch artist embodies both the charismatic and tortured artist of genius as well as the neglected everyman who dwells in the anxious insecurity of our modern age.

"Van Gogh is ours. We are van Gogh," he writes near the end of Solar Dance. He's an all-purpose symbol of "wonder and bewilderment," a "gentle rebel" (because of his inviting imagery) who stands at the gate of a modern era of violence and convulsion.

For some people this breakdown in the old order of things represents freedom, for others anxiety. For Modris Eksteins, who came to Canada from Latvia, there's no turning back.

All around the world, we see people scrambling for certainty — in religion, politics, consumerism. Yet we live in a culture dedicated to the masking and unmasking of all that we hold dear.

Can we hang this all on Vincent van Gogh? Perhaps not, but he is certainly part of it.

Just last month, for example, the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands announced it had finally authenticated a still life by van Gogh, which the museum had purchased in 1974 thinking it was the real thing until doubts set in about eight years ago.

Welcome to our anxious, uncertain century.