AMAC Exclusive – By Eleanor Vaughn
When you think of Art, you might think not only of the portraits and sculptures you can find in a museum, but also marble halls, gilded frames, hushed whispers, and quietly murmuring fountains. You probably wouldn’t think of an animated light show. But Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience, a new art exhibit, projects Van Gogh’s paintings across an entire room. Envisioned by Exhibition Hub, a company specializing in large, accessible, and educational exhibits, the show is currently wowing audiences in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington DC, as well as across Europe. End dates vary from city to city, most in either November or January. The experience brings Van Gogh’s classic work to life like never before: with lights, animation, and sound.
The immersive experience takes place in a large, dark room, littered with benches, beanbags, and those sling-back canvas chairs that look designed for lounging in a meadow. The entire room is like a giant movie screen, where the paintings are shown, shifting into one another. Many are animated; a train chugs along through six different paintings, its whistle audible. Sunflowers dance across the floor as the scene shifts from one painting to another, until the whole thing transforms again. Music and images combine to tell the story of a man’s life and work, painted in light across a dark room.
It’s not all flowers and sunshine, though. Van Gogh experienced plenty of storms in his short life, and the show doesn’t shy away from vivifying his pain as well. Born in 1853, Van Gogh achieved little commercial success before his death in 1890 at the age of 37. He drifted and struggled for much of his life, and didn’t decide to become a painter until he was 27, moving frequently around his home country of the Netherlands and nearby France. His work was hampered by mental illness. After a particularly violent breakdown, during which he famously cut off his own ear, Van Gogh admitted himself into an asylum in the south of France. Only two months after being released from the asylum, he tragically took his own life.
Despite his personal struggles and dark life experiences, Van Gogh’s art is vivid and colorful. In the exhibit, the paintings are projected in a dark room, so the works seem to glow, an excellent effect with his art style. Likewise, the animation is a natural fit. The movement does not distract from the art; rather, it feels like a natural extension of what already exists. Although Starry Night does not move in its frame, we can see that it is full of movement and energy, and seeing it move confirms what we already feel to be true.
The viewer is guided through the images by classical music, synced to the movement of the art: light and flowing, then dark and heavy, reflecting the highs and lows of Van Gogh’s work and life. The lows are not avoided, but faced head-on. The exhibit deals candidly, though not graphically, with Van Gogh’s struggles with mental illness and despair. These struggles are never romanticized, thankfully. His most prolific period of painting was during his stay at an asylum, when he was being treated, and he stopped painting entirely when he was most afflicted. The exhibit never mistakes his tragedy for his genius.
Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience is exciting and moving, an emotional examination of a tragic artist and his work. It’s also approachable. Van Gogh’s paintings are scattered across the world, in museums from New York to London to Paris. Depending on where you’re from, just getting to see one could be a challenge. Here, a dozen can be seen in the same room. The exhibit is not a replacement for seeing the real paintings, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a different way of looking at Van Gogh, where it’s easier to see the patterns and themes of his work, his use of color, light, and subject matter. Aided by the stirring music, it’s also easier to make emotional connections to them and to Van Gogh himself. The experience invites its audience to think about both his art and his life.
Van Gogh wrote his thoughts on art and life in letters to his brother Theo, which were published posthumously. The exhibit includes this quote from these letters: “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” Van Gogh lived this quote. He loved the things he saw, and painted them, so that he could share them with the ones he loved. The beauty and mystery of his art comes from love, and invites love from those who view it. It seems unfair that he valued himself so little when he would become one of the most beloved artists in history. Because he isn’t just admired, or respected, or studied. Van Gogh, more than maybe any other artist, is loved, and his paintings are loved, by young and old around the world.
And Van Gogh is right – it is good to love many things, because love pushes us out of ourselves, beyond lethargy and resignation. When we’re lost and drifting, love drives us to do, not abstractly but concretely, according to our talents. Some paint. Some write. Some sing. Some work long hours, travelling far from home, to keep their homes happy and sound. Some stand and wait, keeping a light in the window after the house has been put to bed. And some bring together music and motion, words and images, light and sound, all in love of a man who could not love himself. Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience is done in love, and it is very well done.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer living in Virginia.