In Weimar Germany, a Passion for van Gogh Leads to Deception

By Clare Clark

What made “The Starry Night” a star? What elevated Vincent van Gogh from an unknown to a phenomenon? The ready answer is genius, but unlaureled genius is axiomatic. In Clare Clark’s terrific new novel, “In the Full Light of the Sun,” the story of van Gogh’s posthumous rise to fame bursts from history like a spurt of the artist’s beloved chrome yellow from a tube of paint.

Set not in Paris or Provence but in Weimar Germany, where the cult of Vincent surges to a level resembling tulip mania and both seedy bars and high-end art galleries are “infested with cretinous fascists,” the novel explores how the extraordinary can become ensnared and finally entombed in the web of a rabid public reception. As Clark puts it in her author’s note, “the idea of a tormented hero unjustly spurned struck a powerful chord” in post-World War I Germany. Which makes sense, since the ground had been well prepared by the country’s sense of victimization after its defeat and the seemingly intractable economic crisis. The van Gogh mania continues today — posters of impasto sunflowers still adorn college dorm rooms.

Prolific and uncataloged as van Gogh was, questions of authenticity have inevitably haunted his body of work. Clark bases her plot on a notorious forgery case that held Germany in thrall during the 1920s and ’30s, when 33 canvases of questionable provenance hit the art market. Several real-life characters provide inspiration for those peopling the novel, chief among them the art critic Julius Meier-Graefe (here named Julius Köhler-Schultz), who stuffed his thoroughly enjoyable if pulpy best-selling biography of the artist with breathless encomiums like this: “His eyes bit into every object, into trees and soil, like an ax. … He painted till he made the stone talk.”

Two other characters join Julius at the center of Clark’s story, a dancer-turned-art dealer named Matthias Rachmann and Emmeline Eberhardt, a rebellious spirit and aspiring artist who, when we first meet her, holds her pencil poised midair above a sketchbook until, “with a howl of vexation,” she hurls it to the floor, curls up in her chair and instantly falls asleep.

A blank wall in his study torments Julius, a lone nail protruding where his wife absconded with his cherished van Gogh self-portrait. He longs to see “the feathered curl of Vincent’s unkempt beard, the green line down the length of his nose, the blue smudge of shadow under his eyes that matched exactly the frenzy of overlapping brush strokes around his head.”

“In the Full Light of the Sun” — the title phrase is praise for van Gogh’s work by his erstwhile roommate in Arles, Paul Gauguin — follows the missing painting as possibly the one true canvas among the dozens whose veracity has come under question. Mysterious Matthias establishes his gallery through trafficking in suspected fakes. Emmeline attends the premier art school in Berlin, one of the few women to do so, yet flounders when it comes to developing a style of her own, instead directing her passion to a female journalist who lives in her building. Emmeline, Matthias and Julius spend a memorably intense, sexually charged evening together, and their paths cross throughout the book in an atmosphere of longing and deceit.

Julius lectures Matthias: “To write about art you must speak as art speaks, passionately and directly to the soul.” Might Clark be speaking to herself here? Until an overly complex last section, she manages the trick well enough, rendering the atmospheric setting precisely and the psychology of her characters with deftness, strength and subtlety. She artfully balances her twin subjects: a painter’s meteoric life and the fiery trail of controversy left behind by a shooting star.

Jean Zimmerman’s most recent novel is “Savage Girl.”

By Clare Clark
424 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.

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