Paintings, projections, VR ‘Starry Nights’ try to bring us closer to the artist. But can we ever really know van Gogh?
In 2017, I took a trip to Paris, where I greedily absorbed as much art as I could. In one of the cavernous rooms of the Musée d’Orsay was the exhibition of Vincent van Gogh, his framed works (‘The Starry Night on the Rhône’, ‘Chambre à Arles’, ‘L’église d’Auvers’, a a number of his own portraits) on a brazen sapphire background rather than the usual chaste white walls of the museum.
I’ve had a poster of ‘Starry Night’, gifted by a friend from college, since my undergraduate dorm days. It hangs framed in my room today. At the Musée d’Orsay, I contemplated his skies and his agitated fields, I stayed for long moments in front of his self-portraits, rooted in the depth of his gaze. And I cried – suddenly, violently. I rushed outside. I had never had such a fierce reaction to a painting, and I never have since.
What does it mean to build intimacy with an artist, even separated by more than a century of history? And can an artist’s work be reinvented to give modern audiences an even more intimate contemporary relationship with art?
These questions came to my mind as I visited the two competing van Gogh immersive exhibitions in Manhattan’s New York neighborhood: “Immersive Van Gogh” at Pier 36 on the East River and “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. To Skylight on Vesey. Contrary to my feelings at the Musée d’Orsay, these shows left me largely indifferent; in fact, the strongest reaction I had was an alarming sense of intrusion and a fallacious connection with the artist and his work.
Immersive art installations – and in particular immersive theater – trigger my sense of play and activate both the critic and the artist in me. There is, however, a big difference between art designed to be immersive and art that is powerful in an immersive medium.
But first, there was a beautiful van Gogh translation: The entrance ceiling of Pier 36, an imaginative 3D recreation of “Starry Night” by designer David Korins, with thousands of painted brushes, looked like a beautiful tribute – an artist taking on another artist in a work that invites a new perspective, channeling the style and motifs of the original work without aiming to be an exact reproduction.
And yet, it was just an aperitif for the main show, a series of connected rooms where people lay down and sit and watch a video of van Gogh’s works being shown in every corner of the room, and it left me numb. And what struck me was not the young women posing for selfies or the older tourists lounging like on a beach or the restless kids scurrying and climbing the large abstract monuments of Korins, their reflective surfaces catching all sunflowers and stars – I have encountered much the same in traditional museum exhibits of van Gogh’s work.
It was the brevity of the paintings in the video footage – how quickly they appeared and disappeared. And that was the animations – its mighty cypress trees manifesting as apparitions of the mist so that the work’s magic was rendered literally. There is no room for subtlety or involvement here. The beauty of being engulfed by projections of van Gogh’s multicolored fields was toned down by the neglect of translation. I stood aside to examine the projections and lost the purposeful brushstrokes and tiny color gradients in the blur of the scan.
I quickly realized that for many in the audience, those details didn’t matter. The goal was to use art as a backdrop for a sort of theatrical experience.
It was precisely this experience that made me uncomfortable. How do you make theater out of an art that is so explicitly contained and individual from van Gogh’s perspective? Despite all the color and character of his work, it would be inaccurate to redraw his paintings as backdrops on the quasi-stages that these exhibitions create for the public to explore not as admirers but as active participants.
No matter how many times I visited the rooms, I had the itchy feeling that it was dishonest to enlarge a painting 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet to fit the horizons of a space. of 75,000 square feet. The images are enlarged and duplicated to create a repeating panning. But there is a reason for the size of the original work; what the painter wanted to obscure, what parts of the world we are allowed to see and what remains for us to imagine. A painting hanging on a museum wall is a declarative statement, the artist saying, “Here is a piece of a world of color, style and form that I have given you.”
Trying to introduce new depth and interactivity into the artist’s work is to imply that van Gogh’s originals – his brushstrokes, rolling fields and torrents of blues or the bowed heads of his laurels roses – did not breathe.
Visitors view a reproduction of ‘The Yellow House’, 1888, at ‘Immersive Van Gogh’ at Pier 36 in New York City.
The van Gogh exhibition in Vesey also used projections as well as 3D deconstructions of his paintings, and I felt more comfortable with these impressive life-size recreations of works such as “Chambre à Arles” in an exhibition that takes place. called itself a “museum.” But my eyes glided over the canvas reproductions of the work, so inferior to reality: the colors were dull, the textures nonexistent, and the fibers of the canvas shone artificially in the light of the exhibition.
I don’t remember van Gogh’s works, but at least it was art, still and isolated, and uninterrupted. And here is the artist – a timeline of his life, presentations on his career.
However, I found the latter part of the exhibit – a journey via a virtual reality headset through some of the landscapes his paintings were based on – off-putting. In this digital world, I floated into van Gogh’s house, then walked out onto the street among the people walking, working, and chatting. Every now and then a frame would appear in front of my field of vision, and the scene would transform, to match its painted counterpart. We are supposed to see the difference between the real world and the world of van Gogh as seen by an illustrator who reads minds. But can a scenographer really put himself in the place of the artist? Are there any chambers in an artist’s impenetrable mind that are best left untouched?
Of course, there is no way to resuscitate the artist, not through Vesey van Gogh’s recreation of his world, nor the Pier 36 exhibit, which also features a van Gogh artificial intelligence that will write you a letter (more precisely, an algorithm recycles words and phrases from its actual letters and delivers them from its own handwriting).
In search of the real van Gogh, I made my first post-pandemic museum trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spent several minutes mesmerized by the wild, almost sensual twists and curls of the dark leaves of “Cypresses”, contrasting with the powdery blues and whimsical pinks that twirl across the sky. A group of enthusiastic art students in cropped jeans and Doc Martens raved about what they had learned from “Wheatfield with Cypresses” as I studied the water-green bush of the painting leaning to the left as if I was listening to a conversation outside the frame.
As I was spending time with “Self Portrait with a Straw Hat” I heard someone behind me say, “What a sad little man. And of course, they were right. The plump pinks and reds in the painting give it a more bodily emphasis than its characteristic cold blue observation of the natural world. The same sunny yellows and fern greens that look unpretentious in her coat and hat make her face look sickly and jaundiced.
What a sad little man – yes, van Gogh’s personal story is a big part of what we relate to, and especially as we come out of a year and a half of a pandemic: his life of hardship, including the isolation and depression. And, in his case, there was also poverty and ultimately suicide. The van Gogh I met in Paris made me cry, not only because of the beauty of the work, but also because I was related to his insecurity and his doubt, his fight against mental illness. . The myth of the tortured artist is so alluring, I’ve clung to it for life.
What van Gogh’s two immersive exhibitions made me understand is how I made unfounded assumptions about the artist and his work in 2017. I can never claim to understand the way he thought and saw the world. I only know what I have read, and that is not enough to understand the entirety of a life. What I do know is how his works draw something beautiful and unfathomable from me: the critic, the art lover, the poet. Because at the end of the day, one cannot claim to know van Gogh, just as one cannot claim that his work can be projected on the walls as if it were the same experience. All we have are the paintings in the frames, but these nights, these cypresses, these sunflowers, they are more than enough on their own.