Walking through the immersive art exhibition Beyond Van Gogh, open through September 4 at the Charleston Area Convention Center, is a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s not the typical way most people view Vincent Van Gogh’s work. There are no posters to read next to stationary paintings. The paintings are infused with animation. There is an ongoing soundtrack. And the exhibition focuses on the joyful and inspirational aspects of a historical figure too often remembered for the tragic aspects of his life. The whole experience lasts about an hour.
Beyond Van Gogh was designed in 2020 and took six months to complete. The team behind it, Paquin Entertainment Group and Normal Studio, wanted an immersive art exhibition that could exist within the parameters of the new Covid normal. So they designed a program that travels with a very small crew and allows for social distancing, so those hungry for museum experiences have the chance to see Vincent Van Gogh’s work in a brand new light.
And it really is a unique approach. Guests begin the process by walking through an area that most closely resembles a traditional museum. However, Van Gogh’s works are not in the foreground; it is his words instead. The opening section presents the story of Van Gogh’s life, punctuated with excerpts from many of the letters he wrote to his brother and key supporter Theo Van Gogh.
“We always have correspondence and letters for artists,” said Fanny Curtat, art history adviser to Beyond Van Gogh. “But this one is especially valuable because he had such a deep connection with his brother Theo for over 18 years. Theo was everything to him. Reading these letters will give you a better sense of how much more there is to him than just the deafening incident and Starry Night.”
The quotations from these letters paint a picture of Van Gogh that contradicts the conventional image of a truly depressed figure. There are words that speak of his great love for art, the world around him, his friends and family, and his desire to do more and be better in the world.
A particular Curtat favorite says: “To be successful, to have lasting wealth, you have to have a different temperament than mine. I will never do what I wanted and should have and strive for. While I clearly feel the value and the originality and superiority of Delacroix, for example of millet, I say to myself very consciously: yes, I am something, I can do something.”
“Art is about finding solutions,” Curtat said of this and other inspirational quotes from artists’ letters. “And you really believe in the power of art when you read his words.”
Next, guests walk through a cascade of imagery: shapes and colors and brushstrokes, with Van Gogh’s face in the background. The effect cascades down the walls and right under guests’ walking feet. The image is striking and can be a little confusing, but is intended to get the viewer used to what they will see in the final part of the exhibition.
A large room with two central columns and bean bags and benches scattered throughout is the ultimate goal of Beyond Van Gogh. The four walls, floor and pillars are filled with colour, movement and imagery as the world of Vincent Van Gogh’s art comes to life in a 35-minute loop.
Beautiful orchestrations play beneath the images, ranging from classical music to “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles. Voices in French, English and Dutch (the three letters inscribed by Van Gogh) recite quotations from his correspondence and contextualize the works that come to life on all surfaces. One such section, The Almond Blossom, is accompanied by a narrative of Theo’s decision to name his child after his brother.
And Van Gogh’s work is brought to life not only by projection of the images but also by animation. Petals explode from paintings and under guests’ feet. The waves of an ocean flow gently. The wind of the starry night blows over the walls.
“The animation follows the development of his images,” said Curtat. “So the first phase doesn’t move that much because its images don’t move. But as you go through his work there is movement everywhere with the texture and brush strokes. It’s all about the energy, so the animation fits that.”
Some of these scenes are dedicated to a specific work, such as Starry Night, which occupies the entire large space. But other sections are collections of Van Gogh’s work. A collage of portraits of local residents places the painter’s image as a “desperate loner” in a different context. A compilation of self-portraits puts 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 pretty noticeable. A truly unique way to experience not just art, but the life journey of a particular artist.
“It’s about finding ways in which these experiences can become useful,” Curtat said. “It’s not just about the entertainment. It brings something to the table. It connects audiences to experiences they might not have, or to a world they might have thought had very little to do with. The point here is to show that a 19th-century artist is still relevant to life in the 21st century. He’s still inspiring. He is still strong in his message and in his art.”
Beyond Van Gogh is on view at the Charleston Area Convention Center through September 4th. Visit vangoghcharleston.com for tickets and more information.
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