Stepping into the Beyond Van Gogh immersive art exhibit is like walking directly into a lifesize painting. It is not the typical way that most people view the work of Vincent Van Gogh. There are no placards to read next to stationary paintings. The paintings are infused with animation. There’s an ongoing soundtrack. And, the focus is on the joyful and inspirational aspects of the Dutch painter, who is too often remembered for the tragic aspects of his life.
In just six months, Paquin Entertainment Group and Normal Studio designed and completed the exhibit in 2020. Created with Covid in mind, the program travels with very little crew and allows for social distancing, so that those starved for museum experiences can see Van Gogh’s work in a brand new light.
With current and past exhibits in 49 U.S. cities, seven Canadian cities and six countries in Central and South America, Beyond Van Gogh is truly taking the world by storm with its unique approach to classic artwork.
Guests begin the process by walking through an area that most resembles a traditional museum. However, Van Gogh’s works are not the first focus; it is instead his words. The opening section of the exhibit features the story of Van Gogh’s life on large, illuminated panels, punctuated by excerpts of letters exchanged between Vincent and his brother and principal supporter Theo Van Gogh between 1872-1890.
“We always have correspondence and letters for artists,” said Fanny Curtat, Beyond Van Gogh’s art history consultant. “But this one is a particularly precious one because over 18 years he had such a deep connection with his brother, Theo. Theo was everything for him. When you read these letters, you have a better sense of how much more there is to him than just the ear cutting incident and ‘Starry Night.’ ”
The quotes taken from the letters paint a picture of Van Gogh that goes against the popular image of a deeply depressive figure. There are words that speak to his great love of art, of the world around him, of his friends and family and his aspirations to do more and be better in the world.
One particular favorite of Curtat’s reads: “To succeed, to have lasting prosperity, one must have a temperament different from mine. I’ll never do what I could have and ought to have wanted and pursued. While I clearly sense the value and originality and superiority of Delacroix, of Millet, for example, then I make a point of telling myself, yes I am something, I can do something.”
Curtat said of this and other inspirational quotes from the letters: “Art is all about finding solutions and there is a real faith in the power of art when you read his words.”
Guests next walk through a waterfall of images, shapes, colors and brushstrokes with Van Gogh’s face superimposed in the background. The effect cascades down the walls and under the walking feet of patrons. The visual is striking and can be disorienting, but is meant to acclimate the viewer to what they will see in the final leg of the exhibit.
A large room with three center pillars, as well as bean bag chairs and benches, is the final destination. The walls, floor and pillars are alive with color, motion and imagery as, on a thirty-five minute loop, the world of Van Gogh’s art comes to life.
Beautiful orchestrations play alongside the images, ranging from classical music to The Beatle’s “Here Comes the Sun.” Voices in French, English and Dutch (the three languages Van Gogh wrote in) recite quotes from his correspondence and contextualize the works that burst to life on all the surfaces. In one such section, “The Almond Blossom,” is accompanied by narration about Theo’s decision to name his child after his brother.
Van Gogh’s work is illustrated not just through projection of the images, but through animation. Flower petals explode out of paintings and under the feet of patrons. The waves of an ocean gently flow. The wind of “Starry Night” breezes across the walls.
“The animation follows the evolution of his paintings,” Curtat said. “So the first phase doesn’t move all that much because his paintings don’t move. But as you go through his work, movement is all over the place with the texture and the brush strokes. It’s all about the energy.”
Some of these scenes are dedicated to one work in particular, like “Starry Night,” which overtakes the entirety of the large room. But other sections are collections of Van Gogh’s works. A collage of portraits of local townspeople challenges the idea of the painter as a “desperate loner.” A compilation of self portraits put Van Gogh’s sense of self into perspective, especially when compared to the actual photograph of a young Van Gogh that begins the loop.
It’s all quite striking—a truly unique way to experience not just art, but the life journey of one artist in particular.
“It’s all about finding ways for these experiences to be useful,” Curtat said. “It’s not just about the entertainment. It brings something to the table. It connects audiences with experiences maybe they wouldn’t have or to a world that maybe they thought they had very little to do with. This is about showing that a 19th century artist is still relevant for a 21st century life. He’s still inspiring. He’s still strong in his message and in his art.”
Beyond Van Gogh is on display at the Charleston Area Convention Center until September 4. Tickets and more information can be found at vangoghcharleston.com.
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