If you stick with me through this entire article, you’ll be presented with an opportunity to win a van Gogh poster! Keep that in mind.
In cities all around the world, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh are coming to life, and people are walking into them. Dear Husband and I recently did so ourselves, and we never wanted to leave. The exhibition is called Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, and if it’s in a city near you (or even in a city far from you), make the effort to go. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
If you’re unable to attend in person, at least go to the Google Play Store on your smartphone and download the exhibition’s app. From there you can click on “search” and see a lot of the information boards and some gorgeous photos of van Gogh’s work. It’s not nearly the same as the actual, delightful, 360 degree experience, but it’s definitely better than nothing.
Since all visitors to this place are allowed to take photographs and videos, I’ll give you a taste of what it was like for me.
As you enter, you are confronted with a wall that is an homage to van Gogh’s iconic sunflowers, superimposed over what is perhaps his most famous painting, “The Starry Night.” Seeing that, along with the elaborate painting outside (which seemed incredibly extravagant for a temporary exhibition), made me realize that I was in for something really special, indeed. They pulled out all the stops for this one.
The information boards in the app will give you a lot of background on his short, tragic, and extremely talented life, so I’ll let you go there to get the full picture of the man. But I will say that the first part of the experience is a virtual museum that reminds you that he loved to paint things over and over and over again, changing them slightly each time, to study the various effects. Seeing all the sunflowers side by side really demonstrates his desire to learn and grow as an artist.
Van Gogh had an unsurpassed love of nature. Not only did he paint sunflowers, but he did a lot of studies of flowers in vases. There was a three-dimensional vase on a wall, and many of his floral paintings were projected on it.
He did quite a few self-portraits. There was one large bust of him, and the many portraits are projected on the bust, morphing from one to the other. Beautiful chaos. I suspect that was often how he felt on the inside.
Be warned that the exhibition shows you no original works by the artist. That’s unfortunate, because I had the privilege of seeing my favorite van Gogh painting, the Irises, at the Getty Center. Getting up close to look at the brush strokes really made me feel like I was standing beside the painter as he created the masterpiece. For continuity’s sake, Dear Husband also took a picture of me beside the digital display we were looking at in this exhibit. (Note that this time I’m wearing my iris face mask!)
It’s shocking that van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. Most of them he gave as gifts. He did barter some of them to pay bills, and I bet the ancestors of the people who received these works are eternally grateful for them, because one of his works fetched 82 million dollars at auction.
Something I learned from this exhibit is that van Gogh was fascinated by Japanese prints. He never got to visit Japan himself, unfortunately. But now that I am aware of his interest in Japonisme, I can see its influence in much of his work. (Japonisme is a French term that refers to the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design on Western European artists during that era. And yes, it’s spelled with an o.) One cool display shows one of his works sliced into pieces, and when you walk in front of it it resolves into the actual panting. Quite fascinating.
Another thing I didn’t realize is that van Gogh was color blind. Perhaps that’s why his color choices seem so otherworldly. There was a video that showed what his own paintings must have looked like to him. It was quite an eye opener.
The exhibit also turned one of his most famous paintings, the Bedroom at Arles, into an actual walk-in display. It felt kind of sacrilegious to walk into this painting, but the sign encourages you to do so, so I did. I couldn’t bring myself to sit on his bed or chair, but I did go in, and it felt like I was entering his head somehow. I did notice that once I broke that psychological boundary, other visitors were able to do so for photographs as well.
The exhibition also describes his psychotic episodes and his fraught relationship with Paul Gauguin, which led to his famous ear mutilation. This caused Gauguin to take off for Paris, and they were never housemates again. (Who could blame him? I’d have done the same thing.) But they did still maintain a correspondence after that, and from those letters it appears that there were no hard feelings on either side. Nothing along the lines of, “Why the hell did you cut off part of your ear, you nutjob?” Talk about an elephant in the room, though.
I was kind of disappointed by this exhibit’s treatment of his death. It’s been long believed that he committed suicide by shooting himself. There were no witnesses. They say he aimed for his heart but the bullet was deflected by bone, missing all vital organs and stopping somewhere near his lower spine. He was able to walk home. He actually died 30 hours later from the infection. What a horrific way to go.
He did struggle with some sort of sporadic psychosis and depression, and had been in and out of a psychiatric institution, the last visit occurring the very year of his death. But this just always seemed like a really weird way to commit suicide to me.
A new theory that makes more sense to me has recently emerged. The people of Arles, after witnessing his bizarre and erratic behavior, including the ear incident, had been trying to get rid of him for quite some time, and mostly they did their best to avoid him, even though his paintings indicate that he was out and about quite a bit. He was the subject of ridicule by one of local boys, who used to mock and tease him relentlessly. A new theory is that this boy was bothering him, and perhaps because he had had enough he waved the gun at the kid, and in the subsequent melee, the gun accidentally went off. And then van Gogh, knowing he was dying, saw no point in getting that boy into trouble, so said nothing.
Either way, we lost a tortured talent way too soon. Who knows what beauty we would have been provided with had he lived on another 50 years. It makes me sad whenever I contemplate it.
But there was much more of this exhibit to see. The true immersive experience, the one that you see in social media, is the big room where his works are projected on the walls and floor, and they have come to life. As I walked into this room, I found hundreds of people there, looking awed, sitting back in lounge chairs or stretched out on the floor as the images swirled and danced around them. The paintings interacted with one another. The trains in many of them trundled from one painting to the next. Birds flew. Boats floated past. This sensual delight was accompanied by beautiful, hypnotic music.
I never wanted to leave that room. It was magical. I imagined van Gogh lying there, observing his works in a way he never could have in life, as rudimentary motion picture shows didn’t come out until 5 years after his death. I think he’d have been rendered speechless like all of the rest of us. I would like to think he would finally feel vindicated in his profound talent.
No words can truly describe this room, so here are some videos for you.
After this profound experience, you kind of have to come back to reality slowly. To do this, you get to have a little art therapy. You enter a room where you can draw your own van Gogh masterpiece. The work covers the walls, and it was fun to look at the various interpretations. I’m including cropped photos of some of the color sheets in case you’d like to try this at home.
Since DH and I had purchased the (highly recommended) VIP experience, we had an additional treat in store for us. It was a virtual reality walk through the town of Arles as it looked in van Gogh’s day, if the entire town had been created by him. It was sort of a day in the life of the painter.
This was my first authentic VR experience, and the minute I placed the visor over my eyes I was fascinated. It started in his iconic bedroom, and then you walk down the stairs and out into the streets of the town and the surrounding countryside. You can turn your head and look down side alleys, and look behind you at the retreating view. You even feel as though you might trip on the cobblestones if you’re not careful. It really felt intimate to me, like I walked with him and he was showing me the views that had inspired his work. Again, I didn’t want to leave.
But as with all things artistic, one eventually has to exit through the gift shop. I wondered what van Gogh would think of all the coffee mugs, key chains, umbrellas and magnets. Would he have laughed, or been flattered, or enraged by the trivialization? Impossible to know, now. I strongly suspect that if he has any ancestors, they are not seeing the profits.
Because we had VIP passes, we were also given a complimentary poster, shown here.
Since we received two of the same poster, I’m giving you an opportunity to win one of them! Simply answer this question in the comments section of this post on my wordpress site, or in the comments below the link that I’ve placed on my blog’s Facebook page:
What is the oddly spelled French term that refers to the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design on Western European artists during the era that van Gogh was a painter?
Deadline for participation in this contest is February 15th, 2022. I will randomly draw one of the names of the people who answer the question correctly. I will then contact you to get shipping information (I promise that I’ll make sure that your address doesn’t appear publicly on WordPress or Facebook.)
If I don’t hear back from the first person chosen within 24 hours of contact, I’ll move on to a second, and so on. If you reside in America, I’ll ship it to you for free. If mailing it to you includes international shipping, however, you’ll have to pay for that shipping in advance.
If you have been enjoying this journey into the world of Vincent van Gogh, here are a few other links you may want to check out:
Of course, the song Vincent (Starry Starry Night) by Don McLean has been running through my head the whole time I have been writing this post. Here’s a beautiful Youtube video that shows many of his works as the song plays. It gives me goose bumps.
Another great Youtube video is a clip from a Dr. Who episode in which the doctor takes van Gogh to a museum to see his own art on display, and to listen to an art curator sing his praises. Van Gogh is moved to tears, and so am I every time I see it.
Many movies have been made about the troubled life of Vincent van Gogh. The best live action one, in my opinion, is At Eternity’s Gate with Willem Dafoe. The performance Dafoe gives us makes you forget he is Dafoe. He inhabits Vincent in such a way that you feel like you’ve been transported to his very soul.
But if you can’t go to the exhibition I’ve described above but wish you could, then I highly recommend that you see the movie Loving Vincent. This award-winning film is animated by 65,000 paintings in the van Gogh style by hundreds of artists, and it took years to complete. It is a masterpiece. I think van Gogh would be very proud.
I wish this troubled man had known what an impact he would have on the world. I’m sure the complex emotions van Gogh would feel as a result of that would have inspired him to create even more amazing paintings. I will forever wonder what might have been, and because of that, whenever I view his work, I am left with a profound feeling of having tasted the pure bittersweetness of this world.
The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5