“Such a weakness you have for beautiful things,” an old friend of art critic Julius Kohler-Schultz tells him, upon meeting his wife, three decades younger than the critic. At the start of In the Full Light of the Sun, the observation is meant as good-natured teasing from an old friend. By the end, it feels more like a warning.
Author Clare Clark’s sprawling novel is based on the true story of art dealer Otto Wacker, who was sentenced to 19 months in prison in 1932 for selling van Gogh forgeries that many art scholars, critics, and curators believed were the real thing. The book is organized into three sections, narrated from three perspectives — that of Julius; Emmeline, a commercial illustrator whose sketch becomes embroiled in the scandal; and Frank, the lawyer defending the art dealer, Matthias Rachmann. This last section, written in the form of a diary, is a harrowing chronicle of one man’s attempts to hold on first to his livelihood, and later to his life, as the Nazis seize power.
Clark introduces Julius as a scholar who became wealthy by writing a biography of van Gogh. Abandoned by the aforementioned wife, he’s less bothered by the end of his marriage than by losing the van Gogh self-portrait she took with her. “The anger was like pain, so complete he could hardly feel it,” Clark writes of the moment Julius realizes the painting is gone. “With a howl, he hurled himself against the bare wall, smashing it with his fists.”
The book’s first hundred or so pages drag with the details of Julius’s attempts to get the painting back from his ex-wife. She won’t let him see their son or the painting unless Julius gives her money. A conflict that should have intense emotional stakes is reduced to a series of negotiations between lawyers.
The pace picks up when Julius meets the mysterious art dealer Matthias Rachmann, the character based on Wacker. Rachmann is a former dancer with “sea glass eyes” who shows Julius what he hopes might be van Gogh paintings and drawings, owned by a mysterious, unnamed Russian nobleman who may or may not exist, or who might be Rachmann’s lover. Julius authenticates the works, his seal of approval opening the doors for other art-world luminaries to follow his lead. He does so even though the paintings are unsigned, even though he doesn’t think the work is very good, reasoning that “the true nature of [van Gogh’s] genius lay not in the paintings themselves, which sometimes failed, but in his vision.” If he’s not captivated by a beautiful object, Julius is enthralled by beautiful ideas, conveniently ignoring signs of a scam.
It’s not until Emmeline’s section that we discover Rachmann might not be telling the whole truth about the van Gogh paintings. The accusations of fraud unfold as a journalist reveals the first clues that the dealer may be lying, landing the latter in court. The last section is a sharp contrast to both of the previous sections. Frank, Rachmann’s lawyer, is Jewish, the Nazi’s are gaining power, and despite assurances that there are “moderating elements” and that “someone will do something,” his neighborhood is filled with signs warning “Germans, protect yourselves. Don’t buy from Jews … The Jews are our misfortune.” He knows the case is a losing battle from the start: “As Berliners fought pitched battles in the streets and kicked the last shreds of life from the limp-wristed Weimar experiment, no one was on the side of the queers and the dancers.” The harrowing reality of life makes having to defend an art forger seem futile given the situation in Germany.
Clark’s use of multiple narrators could have offered readers more insight into how scandals and scams unfold, how we make truth malleable to fit our needs, how something like an art forgery scandal could be a compelling diversion from the social and political chaos of Weimar Germany and the rise of fascism. Clark raises important questions about the lengths we go to distract ourselves from governmental horrors, and how art can’t save us. Unfortunately, the abundance of voices and plot lines hinders the author from providing any answers.
In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark (2019) is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.