Graeme Wood

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Artful lies

Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty, By Modris Eksteins, Harvard University Press, 341 pp., $27.95

“People who buy pictures on the basis of authentication alone deserve to be cheated.” Julius Meier-Graefe delivered this expert opinion—a high-culture take on “never give a sucker an even break”—on the witness stand in 1932 Berlin. He was one of Germany’s best and most respected art critics—and, it turned out, a bit of a sucker himself, having fallen victim, along with other pillars of the art establishment, to a young German forger named Otto Wacker. A dancer and art dealer, Wacker had offered for sale 30 paintings attributed to Vincent Van Gogh, some of which Meier-Graefe had authenticated. His verdict had carried a great deal of weight, and the paintings sold rapidly until their poor quality began to raise doubts. Wacker was convicted at the trial and sent to prison, and Meier-Graefe’s reputation fell. But even as late as the 1980s, some people doubted what we now know for certain: Wacker was a fraud.

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Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River”

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

If the purpose of travel is to be disabused of illusions, then Ellis Hock, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River, has spent his airfare wisely. Recently separated from his bullying wife, Hock sells his Medford, Massachusetts haberdashery and sets out to the village in Malawi where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago. As a young man in that village, he found and lost love, became adept at handling serpents, and spent his life’s happiest years improving the village. Everything in his life since then — a marriage undermined by his wandering eye, a business crashing toward obsolescence, a daughter greedy for an early taste of her inheritance — has reeked of failure, and eventually the temptation to escape to Africa proves irresistible.
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