Wandering through the Beyond Van Gogh immersive art exhibit, open at the Charleston Area Convention Center until September 4, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is not the typical way most people view Vincent Van Gogh’s work. There are no signs to read next to the stationary paintings. The paintings are infused with animation. There is a soundtrack in progress. And the exhibition focuses on the joyful and inspiring aspects of a historical figure who is too often remembered for the tragic aspects of his life. The whole experience lasts about an hour.
Beyond Van Gogh was conceived in 2020 and took six months to complete. The team behind, Paquin Entertainment Group and Normal Studio, wanted an immersive art exhibit that could exist within the parameters of the new Covid normal. So they designed a program that travels with very little crew and allows for social distancing, so those hungry for museum experiences can have the opportunity to see Vincent Van Gogh’s work in a whole 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 the primary focus; they are rather his words. The opening section features Van Gogh’s life story, punctuated with excerpts from numerous letters he wrote to his brother and main supporter Theo Van Gogh.
“We always have correspondence and letters for artists,” said Beyond Van Gogh art history consultant Fanny Curtat. “But this one is particularly precious because for 18 years he had such a deep connection with his brother, Theo. Theo was everything to him. more to him than the ear-cutting incident and Starry Night.
The quotes from these letters paint a picture of Van Gogh that goes against the popular image of a truly depressive character. There are words that speak of his great love for art, the world around him, his friends and family, and his aspirations to do more and be better in the world.
A particular favorite of Curtat says, “To succeed, to have lasting prosperity, you have to have a temperament different from mine. I will never do what I could and should have wanted and pursued. While I clearly feel the value and the originality and the superiority of Delacroix, of millet for example, then I want to say to myself, 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 there’s real faith in the power of art when you read his words.”
The guests then go through a cascade of images: shapes and colors and brushstrokes with Van Gogh’s face superimposed in the background. The effect cascades down the walls and right under the footsteps of customers. The visual is striking and can be a little disorienting, but aims to acclimate the viewer to what they will see in the final stage of the exhibit.
A large room with two central pillars, along with bean bag chairs and benches scattered throughout, is Beyond Van Gogh’s final destination. The four walls, floor and pillars come alive with color, movement and imagery as, on a thirty-five minute loop, Vincent Van Gogh’s art world comes to life.
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 written by Van Gogh) recite excerpts from his correspondence and contextualize the works that come to life on all surfaces. In one of these sections, The Almond Blossom, is accompanied by a narration about Theo’s decision to name his child after his brother.
And Van Gogh’s work comes to life not only through the projection of images, but through animation. Flower petals explode off the tables and under the feet of patrons. The waves of an ocean are gently flowing. The starry night wind blows on the walls.
“The animation follows the evolution of his paintings,” Curtat said. “So the first phase doesn’t move that much because his paintings don’t move. But as you go through his work, movement is everywhere with texture and brushstrokes. It’s all about energy, so animation goes with it.
Some of these scenes are dedicated to a particular work, such as Starry Night, which occupies the entire large hall. But other sections are collections of works by Van Gogh. A collage of portraits of local townspeople places the painter’s idea of a “desperate loner” in a different context. A compilation of self-portraits puts Van Gogh’s sense of self into perspective, especially against the actual photograph of a young Van Gogh starting the loop.
Everything is quite striking. A truly unique way to experience not just art, but the life journey of a particular artist.
“It’s about finding ways to make those experiences useful,” Curtat said. “It’s not just about entertainment. It brings something to the table. It connects the audience to experiences they might not have or to a world they might have thought had very little to do with. It’s about showing that a 19th century artist is still relevant to a 21st century life. He is always inspiring. He is 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 are available at vangoghcharleston.com.
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