I began researching In the Full Light of the Sun because I was fascinated by the pervasive myth of van Gogh, perhaps the only artist in history whose biography is familiar to those who know little or nothing about art. The story of the madman genius who never sold a painting in his lifetime, cut off his ear and shot himself is compelling. It is also, for the most part, untrue. Its origins lie instead in a colorful biography by a German art critic who shamelessly filled in the gaps in the story “to further,” as he explained afterwards, “the creation of legend. For there is nothing we need more than new symbols, legends of the humanity that comes from our own loins.” The book was a runaway bestseller. In Germany in particular, a nation reeling from devastating defeat in World War I, the story of a spurned and tormented hero whose genius was recognized too late struck a powerful chord. They co-opted van Gogh as one of their own: in the 1920s there were more van Gogh paintings in Germany than in the rest of the world put together.
As a storyteller this fascinated me. In recent years we have become used to the idea of “fake news” but stories have always taken shape according to what we need from them, because we are angry or jealous or eaten up with longing, because they suit us better that way. I knew I wanted to write about it but how and through whose eyes?
It was when I stumbled on the little-known story of Otto Wacker that I knew I had found the heart of my novel. Wacker was a young, handsome German dancer-turned-art-dealer who, between 1924 and 1926, came into possession of more than thirty previously unseen van Goghs. He refused to disclose the identity of the collector who owned them, saying only that he was a Russian prince forced to flee Moscow after the 1917 revolution. Instead, to compensate for their lack of provenance, Wacker asked experts in Germany and beyond to authenticate his paintings and guarantee their veracity. By then van Gogh was already one of the most sought-after artists of the modern era and, duly rubber-stamped, the paintings sold fast and for ever-increasing sums to dealers and collectors across Europe and the United States. Wacker gained a reputation for humility and straight dealing. He opened a gallery on Viktoriastrasse, Berlin’s grandest street. It was not until early 1928 that a Berlin gallery raised questions about four of Wacker’s paintings. By 1933, when the case finally reached court, all thirty two stood accused of being fakes.
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