Vincent Van Gogh: Immersed in Genius
by Ellen He
Van Gogh is known as a genius under-appreciated in his time. Now we get to be immersed in his genius, appreciating with sight and sound, for the very first time.
When I walked into the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, I felt a tingling within me like I was a part of something bigger. A sky with stars lifted from the floor of the 60,000-square-foot building, like a curtain revealing the rest of Café Terrace at Night. One of my favourite pieces from the Dutch painter—I was in awe—to see it larger than life across every wall, accompanied by the perfect music score.
I stood in one of the social-distancing circles designed to maintain the safety of patrons and staff amidst Covid-19. Limited capacity allowing 75-square-feet per person, I saw a loving old couple on a bench. I saw a presumed 7-year-old kid lying atop their similar-aged sibling, their heads tilting to the visuals moving. A young man snapping an IG of his girlfriend standing in front of a wall, her outfit a projector of Irises. When the swirling forms of The Starry Night started twirling on the floor, I had an urge to step on one. I was near a wall when The Bedroom came on, admiring how you could see the tiniest textures of Van Gogh’s own bedroom walls; not a pixel detected.
In the middle of the exhibit is an ‘island terrace’ walk-up, where you can see everything from two thirds the height of the room. A ‘balcony-style’ view if you will, where I got to see the immersive show from the beginning; it plays on a loop and you can stay for as long as you want. Amongst a screen-like black, text and images cut in and out, some lingering – a skull smoking a cigarette, sketches against a shifty, edgy music intro. Afterwards, various Sunflowers beam vibrant and joyful. Throughout the show his brilliance is palpable; makes you introspect as he often did. My body coming out of itself, so moved by his talent and devotion to his art as I thought about his posthumous success, mental health, how misunderstood and ahead of his time he was. I wanted my circle to have pillows and a blanket to just soak it all in. I told my girlfriend once we were out, ‘I could see that being in a romantic film.’
While you’re immersed, you’d never guess the room is lit with 52 projectors (enough to light a stadium), 60,600 frames of video, 52 custom fiber optic cables, and 9 million pixels. All this plus the soundtrack, are brought to life by Art Director Massimiliano Siccardi and Composer Luca Longobardi. The same dynamic duo behind the iconic Atelier des Lumières in Paris. Siccardi is an artistic force in mise-en-scène – the world of video art – having received critical acclaim for his contributions in dance theatre. Longobardi is classically trained and fuses the genre with contemporary and experimental electronic music. For Immersive Van Gogh, he’s created a contemporary-classical playlist that follows “the human and emotional condition of the artist, and his way of expressing his sensitivity through creative action.” Longobardi continues, “I have been involved in 15 other immersive shows with [Massimiliano], but I think this Van Gogh, this Vincent of ours, is perhaps the most honest and true work done so far.”
In its own fun way, the gift shop, too, pays homage to Van Gogh’s work. You can get a shirt that has your own painted version of a Van Gogh piece screen-printed. A photo booth awaits your face in a Van Gogh portrait. There’s books, lanyards, tote bags, decorative plates and prints of Van Gogh’s art. Works from local artists are also featured, some incorporating images of Van Gogh in their mixed media or collage.
For me it’s a work trip—I’d just gotten hired by the production company Lighthouse Immersive, created by Svetlana Dvoretsky of Show One Productions and Corey Ross of Starvox Entertainment. Along with another copywriter, web designer, and project manager, we were to create a Teacher’s Resource Guide for Grades 9-12. Students would learn of Van Gogh, his selected works, the making of the exhibit, and how to stay inspired after their visit. They’d have context for the pairings of painting to song in the exhibit, developing their own memories of the curriculum.
It makes the immersive experience all that more meaningful—to see Almond Blossom and know Vincent painted it for the son of his brother Theo & sister-in-law Johanna. Theo wrote, “we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you.”
To see The Potato Eaters and feel how each figure’s complexity as a human is profoundly captured. To see his self-portraits marking his life’s evolution, from his straw hat, his 1889 piece in Saint-Rémy, his bandaged ear. "I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer,” he said, with 43 self-portraits made in his artistic career. He wrote, “People say, and I am willing to believe it that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either.”
To witness the Japanese-art-inspired colours, compositions, and flat-paint in many of his famed works. See his impasto (thick applications of paint) come to life and move in the show’s larger-than-life subjects. It’s no wonder Van Gogh was meant to be an artist, as no other profession—his uncle’s art dealership Groupil & Cie, teaching at a Methodist boys’ school, studying to become a Minister—lasted as his artistry had. He’d been named after his stillborn brother who’d been born the previous year to the day. He had to leave school at age 15 to work and help his family’s financial struggles. When he got reassigned from The Hague to the Groupil Gallery in London, he spent his free time exploring art galleries and authors such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot. His heart not in art dealing and difficult to work with, Vincent was let go in 1876. His Minister studies also ended when he refused to take the Latin exams. He was opinionated and often held views people at the time didn’t relate to.
Theo was the most supportive of Van Gogh’s uniqueness, giving him housing and financial support so he could pursue his artistic inclinations starting in 1880. By 1888, Van Gogh moved to Arles, the south of France, inspired by its resemblance to Japan. You can see The Yellow House in the exhibit, which Vincent bought to become a “studio of the south,” where like-minded artists could live and work amongst each other. It was in this house he used his imagination to produce The Red Vineyard after walking past a plantation that inspired the motif. His friend Paul Gaugin had influenced Vincent to paint more from his imagination, which he combined with his memory and emotions to make The Starry Night during his stay in the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Paul Gauguin loved the Sunflowers series and believed they were “completely Vincent.” The flowers are known to be symbolic of gratitude for Van Gogh. The two artists had lived in Arles together before their friendship grew strained. On December 23, 1888, one argument resulted in Vincent cutting off his ear, which he couldn’t recall the next morning in the hospital where Theo visited him. Vincent returned home but was eventually re-hospitalized, admitting himself to the asylum, for fear of another incident, in May. But he shall be remembered for more than this incident, often sensationalized in popular culture.
He was significant in the post-impressionist movement—capturing beyond the natural environment; injecting his emotions, psychological responses, memories and imagination. Someone who wanted to “make drawings that move some people,” he wrote to Theo:
“I want to reach the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly. Despite my so-called coarseness — you understand — perhaps precisely because of it…What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an oddity or a disagreeable person — someone who has and will have no position in society, in short a little lower than the lowest. Very well — assuming that everything is indeed like that, then through my work I’d like to show what there is in the heart of such an oddity, such a nobody. This is my ambition, which is based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.”
In 1890, Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, an artist’s village near Paris, to receive regular care from Dr. Paul Gachet. Theo, Jo, and nephew Vincent Willem visited Van Gogh during this time. But on July 27, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest, later requesting Theo take him home from the hospital. On July 29, 1890, Van Gogh passed at age 37; his brother by his bedside in Auberge Ravoux. Theo went on to pass 6 months after Vincent, and his widowed wife Jo finished what he’d planned to do. She gathered 71 of Van Gogh’s paintings to display at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery show in Paris in 1901. His fame grew from there, and Van Gogh’s mother, who’d thrown much of Vincent’s art out, lived to see her son celebrated and distinguished as a creative genius. Johanna also went on to publish Theo and Vincent’s letters. Her son, named after Van Gogh, went on to found the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Talk about a somebody.