See the pain of the past artist during an immersive experience
“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” uses digital technology to transport viewers into the artist’s world. This is the idea of Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Normal Studio in Montreal, as well as art historian Fanny Curtat. Their show has been seen across North America, and now it’s come to Sarasota.
Experience is a hybrid of words and images. In the case of Vincent Van Gogh, this is often problematic. Countless biographies and biopics focus on the pain of the artist’s last 37 years: Van Gogh’s poverty, the ear-cutting incident, and his conflicts with Paul Gauguin. It’s a story of suffering – a familiar story, steeped in popular culture. This story often frames perceptions of Van Gogh’s art.
He suffered, no doubt. The creators of “Beyond Van Gogh” do not deny this. But they also reveal the joyful moments that don’t fit the conventional narrative.
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This exhibition includes three spaces. In the beginning is the word. This introductory section magnifies quotes from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo Van Gogh. The result is a stream of consciousness narrative by a mind that is not constantly in pain. The artist’s letters are full of joy and artistic discovery. It’s not all “poor me”.
From here you walk through the “waterfall room”. This transitional space projects a constant cascade of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes above the doorway. You see hints of complementary color and hints of under canvas.
Stepping through the door, you enter the main attraction – the immersive part of the exhibit. Here, you walk through a huge space (30,000 square feet) featuring projections and digital animations of Van Gogh’s drawings and paintings. You don’t just look at his art. The experience is more like a walk inside one of his paintings.
This exhibit also plays with your sense of scale. Creators bring you closer to the brushstrokes of the artist. In terms of relative size, it’s like studying detail in 100-foot paintings.
In addition to playing with proportions, digital animators add a kinesthetic dimension. Van Gogh’s art gives the impression of wanting to move. Here it is.
The artist’s nervous brushstrokes come to life like ocean currents. Pipe smoke, clouds, the swirling cosmos and waving cypresses, the images surround you on all sides in the massive room – and even flow beneath your feet. It’s trippy, to say the least.
As the interactive sea washes over you, Van Gogh’s art appears in roughly chronological order. You are first immersed in his melancholic earlier paintings and drawings, the dark tones of “The Potato Eaters” (1885) and other studies of Dutch peasants.
The tone clears up after Van Gogh settles in Paris. In this period, the bright colors of all familiar posters emerge. The City of Light floods the artist’s senses to the point of overload.
In the winter of 1888, Van Gogh fled Paris to the south of France – and his failed utopian dream of founding an artists’ colony with Gauguin. His life took a darker turn, but his art became even brighter. “The Yellow House” where he lived seemed radiant with possibilities.
Van Gogh’s visions surround you in this exhibition. His art unfolds from year to year. But the schedule is not rigid. It is punctuated by art defined by theme.
Portraits of ordinary people: Van Gogh’s friends and neighbors in Arles, because he could not afford models. A montage of flowers, which happily posed, after Van Gogh’s hardened neighbors lost patience. Thanks to digital animation, the flowers dance.
Van Gogh’s art became positively psychedelic during his days in Arles. Here, the familiar “Starry Night” (1889) encompasses you – and it is suddenly unknown to you. A night scene like no other. Stars swirl with swirls of lines like iron filings in magnetic fields. Realistic, no. It’s not the view of the Hubble telescope, but it may be much deeper.
The denouement envelops you with glimpses of “Wheatfield with Crows” (1890). One of Van Gogh’s last paintings, created before his apparent suicide.
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The immersive experience ends with a montage of the artist’s signatures. This emphasizes Van Gogh’s art – and makes a powerful point.
Popular culture frames Van Gogh’s art based on his sad biography. It should be the reverse. Forget the story of misfortune and just look at his art.
In this immersive experience, that’s what you do. The imagery flowing around you speaks of light, color and power. Van Gogh’s art is full of joie de vivre. Yes, there are moments of sadness. But the pain is not the issue.
This immersive exhibition makes that clear and doesn’t try to substitute for reality. It’s a powerful experience, with some shortcomings. He could use a full catalog. (I’m told it’s in progress.) Website resources and augmented reality would also be great. The creators have pushed the technological envelope quite far – why not go further?
Omissions aside, it’s still a great show.
Familiarity breeds cliché. Van Gogh’s art has become so familiar that it tends to lose its power.
This exhibition makes you see Van Gogh’s art with fresh eyes. Once you’ve done it, it’s easy to see that it’s still going strong.
“Beyond Van Gogh: the immersive experience”
Until April 24 at 195 University Town Center Drive, Sarasota. For tickets and information, visit: vangoghsarasota.com.