In 2017 I took a trip to Paris, where I greedily charged for all the art I could. In one of the cavernous chambers of the ornate Orsay Museum was the exhibition of van Gogh, his framed works, “Starry Night on the Rhone”, “Bedroom in Arles”, “The Church of Auvers” , some of his portraits) on a cheeky sapphire background instead of the usual caste white walls of the museum.
Since my college residency, I’ve had a “Starry Night” poster gifted by a college friend. Today it hangs framed in my bedroom. In the Orsay Museum I looked at his restless skies and fields, I stood long stretches in front of his self-portraits, rooted in place by the depth of his gaze. And I cried suddenly, violently. I ran out. I had never had such a fierce reaction to a painting and I have never had it before.
What does it mean to create intimacy with an artist, even one separated by more than a century of history? And can the work of an artist be reinvented to offer the modern public an even more intimate contemporary relationship with art?
Immersive artistic installations, and especially immersive theater, trigger my sense of play and activate both the critic and the artist there. There is a big difference between art designed to be immersive and art armed with force in an immersive medium.
But first there was a beautiful translation by van Gogh: The entrance roof of Pier 36, an imaginative three-dimensional recreation of designer David Korins’ “starry night,” with thousands of painted brushes, felt like a beautiful tribute: a artist who takes on another artist in a work that invites a new perspective, channeling the style and motifs of the original work without pretending to be an exact reproduction.
And yet this was just an aperitif for the main show, a series of connected rooms where people lie down, sit and watch a video of Van Gogh’s works projected in every corner. of the room, and that left me asleep. And what attracted me was not the young women posing for selfies or the older tourists resting as if they were on the beach or the restless children running and climbing the great abstract monuments of Korins, their reflective surfaces capturing all sunflowers and stars. I have found almost the same in the traditional museum exhibitions of Van Gogh’s work.
It was the brevity of the paintings in the video sequence: the speed with which they appeared and disappeared. And it was the animations: their powerful cypresses manifested themselves as apparitions of the fog, so that the magic of the play is literally translated. There is no room for subtlety or involvement here. The beauty of being swallowed up by the projections of van Gogh’s multicolored fields was subdued by the laxity of the translation. I stood to one side to examine the projections and lost the decided brushstrokes and tiny color gradients in the diffusion of digitization.
I quickly realized that for a good number of people in the audience, these details didn’t matter. The aim was to use art as a backdrop for a kind of theatrical experience.
It was precisely this experience that unsettled me. How is a theater made with art so explicitly contained and individualized from Van Gogh’s perspective? Despite all the color and character of his work, it would not be necessary to redesign his paintings as settings in the quasi-settings that these exhibitions create so that the public can explore them not as admirers but as active participants.
No matter how many times I walked through the rooms, I had the itchy feeling that it was dishonest to expand a 2 ½ by 3 foot painting to fit the horizons of a 75,000 foot space. Images are magnified and duplicated to create a repetitive panorama. But there is a reason for the size of the original work; what the painter wanted to hide, what parts of the world they allow us to see and what we can imagine. A painting hanging on the wall of a museum is a declarative statement, according to the artist: “Here is a piece of a world of color, style and shape that I have given you.”
Trying to introduce a new depth and interactivity into the artist’s work means implying that Van Gogh’s originals (his brushstrokes, his swaying fields and torrents of blue, or the tilting heads of his oleanders) did not breathe.
Van Gogh’s exhibition at Vesey used projections in a similar way along with three-dimensional deconstructions of his paintings, and I felt more comfortable with these stunning life-size recreations of works like “Bedroom in Arles” in an exhibition that it was styled as a “virtual museum”. But my eyes reflected on the canvas reproductions of the work, so inferior to reality: the colors were dull, the textures non-existent, 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 here was the art, standing and alone, and uninterrupted. And here was the artist, a timeline of his life, discovering his career.
Still, I found the final part of the exhibition: a journey through virtual reality headphones through some of the landscapes on which his paintings were based. In this digital world I floated around Van Gogh’s house and then took to the streets among people working and chatting. From time to time, a frame appeared in front of my field of vision and the scene was transformed to match its painted counterpart. We are destined to see the difference between the real world and the world of Van Gogh seen by a mental reading illustrator. But can any stage designer really get into the skin of the artist? Are there some chambers of the impenetrable mind of a better artist that are not touched?
Of course, there is no way to resurrect the artist, either through the recreation of his world by Vesey van Gogh, or by the exhibition Pier 36 (which also offers an AI van Gogh who will write you a letter; an algorithm he recycles words and phrases from his real -cards of life and delivers them with his own letter).
In search of the real van Gogh, I made my first outing to the post-pandemic museum at the Met. I spent a few minutes fascinated by the wild, almost sensual twists and curls of the dark leaves of “Cypresses,” in contrast to the dusty blues and whimsical pinks that pirouette in the sky. A group of art students eager for jeans and Doc Martens rushed over what they had learned from “Wheat Field with Cypresses” as they studied the sea green bush leaning to the left as if listening an out-of-frame conversation.
As I spent time with “Straw Hat Self-Portrait,” I heard someone behind me say, “What a sad man.” And, of course, they were right. The fleshy pinks and reds of the painting give it a more bodily emphasis than its characteristic blue and fresh observation of the natural world. The same sunny yellows and fern greens that look modest on the coat and hat make her face look sickly and jaundiced.
What a sad man, yes, Van Gogh’s personal story is a big part of what we relate to, and especially when we come out of a year and a half of pandemic: his life of hardship, including isolation and depression. And, in his case, there was also poverty and eventually suicide. The van Gogh I met in Paris made me cry, not only because of the beauty of the play, but also because it related to his insecurity and his doubt, his struggle with mental illness. The myth of the tortured artist is so seductive, that I clung to it during my beloved life.
But what I realized about Van Gogh’s two immersive exhibitions is that I also made unfounded presumptions about the artist and his work in 2017. I can never pretend to understand his way of thinking and seeing the world. I just know what I’ve read and that’s not enough to understand the whole of a life. What I do know is the way in which his works take advantage of something beautiful and unfathomable in me: the critic, the art lover, the poet. Because after all, we cannot pretend to know Van Gogh, just as we cannot pretend that his work can be projected on the walls as if it were the same experience. All we have are the paintings of the frames, but those nights, those cypresses, those sunflowers, are more than enough on their own.