Painting from the inside out: 'Beyond Van Gogh'

Perhaps it’s best that we all have our season, never to return in the flesh once we’ve departed from this world. But to leave behind an enduring legacy is another matter.

It may be apocryphal that Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) received less recognition for his work than the myths about him suggest. Still, such attention and popularity as his work and life receive today would likely have been too much for an artist who may have suffered from any one of a number of mood disorders (all diagnosed postmortem and never definitively) which, at times, affected his behavior. Few among us, even those with no particular interest in art history, are unaware of the episode in which Van Gogh, in a fit of madness, cut off his own ear.

Armchair art historians can bandy back and forth about the degree to which mental illness affected the style of his work, but the art itself was a gateway to healing and a reflection of the beauty in the world he sought to convey.

“There’s something uniquely relevant and timeless in his work,” says Fanny Curtat, art historian and doctoral candidate at the Université du Québec à Montréal. “There’s something iconic about Van Gogh.”

Curtat is a consultant on the traveling exhibition Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, which opens at Albuquerque’s Immersive Pavilion on Wednesday, March 2. The fully immersive multimedia experience invites visitors to step inside Van Gogh’s paintings as more than 300 of his works shift and swirl about the walls and floors in a series of animated projections. Visitors will be immersed in some of the artist’s most famous works, such as The Starry Night (1889) and Café Terrace at Night (1888), as well many of his self-portraits and other works.

But the exhibition was more than an opportunity to reimagine Van Gogh’s art using 21st-century digital technology. It was a chance to introduce the world to the beauty, color, and light that infused his works and dispel some of the myths about the man. The pandemic provided the perfect opportunity.

“It was really about showcasing why Van Gogh is still so popular, why he’s still so relevant, and bringing up a resonance between the 21st-century audience and this 19th-century artist,” says Curtat, who’s been involved with the project from its inception. “It all started in October 2020, so it was very much in the midst of the pandemic. This type of immersive experience was constructed with the pandemic in mind. It would allow people to both go through something culturally and have enough space to be safe.”

The exhibition is designed to be adaptable to the health directives of the various locations to which it travels. But audiences might also find an analogy between some of Van Gogh’s own experiences and those wrought by the pandemic in our own time.

“During the pandemic, we were going back and forth between confinements and all these situations,” Curtat says. “To have somebody who was so well known for the hardships in his life and who was able to transcend all of that into works of art — he painted Starry Night while being cooped up in an asylum.”

Beyond Van Gogh was created by Mathieu St-Arnaud, creative director of Montreal’s Normal Studio, and his team. They approached Curtat as someone who could advise on what story to tell, what artwork to include.

“It was a very easy fit for these types of experiences because his art is basically about light and movement,” she says. “So you don’t need too much to breathe new life into it. But it’s how you do it and why you do it.”

The “how” is manifested in the third section of the exhibit, the Immersive Room. The “why” is covered in the Introduction Hall, which includes text with excerpts from the famous letters between Van Gogh and his brother, Theo. From the Introduction Hall, visitors pass into a Waterfall Room that prepares them for main attraction.

“Putting all of this together is where I came in, with the artistic director, Mathieu St-Arnaud, and a team of animators,” Curtat says.

Painting from the inside out: 'Beyond Van Gogh'

Another aspect of an immersive exhibit of this type, which reflects how the pandemic has impacted the exhibition landscape on a broader scale, is that there was no need to package, ship, and insure priceless works of art. Technically, there are no paintings in this exhibit, only the illusion of them by way of projection.

“In a sense, we’re at a disadvantage because we don’t have the magic objects themselves, which is inimitable,” Curtat says. “These experiences can never be seen as a replacement for the originals. But we have the freedom to choose whatever we want from over 800 paintings and 2,000 pieces if you add the sketches, watercolors, and everything.”

The team was also intent on finding a balance between popular works, like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, of which he created two series between 1887 and 1888, and works that reflect his evolution as an artist. The idea, says Curtat, was to go beyond the idea of Van Gogh as the epitome of the troubled, struggling artist, which often supersedes an appreciation for the work itself, and emphasize the power of the art.

“At the beginning, his work was much darker, and it has a very different style you would not so easily recognize as Van Gogh,” she says. “He starts from that, then he gets to Paris and it gets much brighter. Then he gets to the South of France and you have this explosion of color, these very vivid brushstrokes, colors side by side, not blended. Through this evolution, there’s a lot of pieces that people don’t know about.”

There is another tech-centered Van Gogh experience sweeping the country, digital artist Massimiliano Siccardi’s Immersive Van Gogh, which suggests that the Dutch painter is now more popular than ever. That was not the case for much of his artistic career, a fact that could be applied, however, not just to Van Gogh but to his impressionist and post-impressionist contemporaries as well. Artists such as French painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883) rebelled against the establishment, challenging the academic styles favored by the Paris Salon. Van Gogh, immersed in this time and keenly aware of the artistic trends of his day — he was friends with post-impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and met many of the artists of the avant-garde while in Paris — experienced criticism in his lifetime but also was met with praise.

“You had this art critic, Gabriel Aurier in Paris, who wrote this article about Van Gogh, comparing him to an alchemist of color, a genius of light,” Curtat says. “You have Theo and Van Gogh’s letters, this exchange between the brothers where you have Vincent saying ‘I need to fix this. He can’t be talking about me. How can he be talking about me?’ He was not really dealing well with his success. To have him come back now, I’m sure, would be utterly overwhelming for him. But then again, the fact that his work still speaks volumes today and is still so widely known and accessible to everybody I hope would please him, because that sort of achieved one element of his work and his purpose.” 

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