I attended the "Beyond Van Gogh" exhibit at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee twice in one week, first in a family group that included Sue's sister Sarah, visiting from Michigan, then a few days later I returned with our son Tom, visiting from California, whom we hadn't seen in person in a year and a half. I thought that, as someone working with animation on both Cartoon Network and Hulu, he'd be interested in the "Immersive Experience" the exhibit promoted. Of course, what he'd bring to the exhibit would be different from what I brought to it.
"Beyond Van Gogh" immerses viewers in Vincent Van Gogh's artwork through audio-visual animation that surrounds them with colors, shapes, music, motion, and quotes from his writing. You enter through a room hung with rows of empty picture frames and dangling panels of explanation and quotation mounted on backgrounds from his paintings. Weaving your way among the rows, you enter a second room with black walls where wavering white dots slowly congeal into the shape of Vincent's face. In a much larger third room Van Gogh's paintings are projected onto every surface—the walls, several tall square columns, every inch of flooring.
It's hard to know where to fix your attention. With light and color pulsing around and below you, everything competes for your scrutiny. You may recognize individual paintings you've seen displayed in museums you've visited or encountered online or in books, but it's hard not to be disoriented by the size and scope of what encircles you. The paintings are not mounted in isolation on the walls but projected expansively onto every surface. Moreover, they are often in motion, morphing from one image to another, flowing off the walls and across the floor beneath your feet. You and all the dark figures around you are—Well, yes!—immersed in Van Gogh's artwork.
Individual images often come to life. Gazing at one familiar Van Gogh self-portrait towering over me on a nearby square column, his face spilling onto two sides, I saw his left eye blink—or was it a wink? Clouds changed shape in the "Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds" image. As the "Wheatfield with Crows" landscape unrolled across the wall and flowed onto the floor, the crows began flapping their wings and flying across blue sky. "Sunflowers" arose all around us. The "Almond Blossom" painting spread itself across one wall after another until it encircled the room and then its blossoms began sailing across every wall and every column and every patron and everywhere underfoot. At other art exhibits I've taken snapshots to aid my memory; here I started a long video that made me rotate around the room and linger on the closest column, blossoms abounding, until I became aware of the walls slowly changing their image, the blossoms no longer falling and another landscape emerging behind them.
Swirls of light on a dark blue background became "The Starry Night," overwhelmingly immersive. The soundtrack played an instrumental version of Don McLean's tune "Vincent," the one that repeats the phrase "Starry, starry night." The melody for Paul Simon's "America" played as well—both tunes would repeat in my head often over the coming days and make me struggle to recall their lyrics. "The Bedroom." "The Yellow House." "Vase of Gladioli." "Vase with Irises." "The Potato Eaters." Self-portrait after self-portrait lining the walls. An abundance of the artist's signatures inscribing themselves in multi-colored squares and rectangles. Countless images constantly replacing one another.
I felt absorbed into it—thoroughly immersed. Each time I visited, I left uncertain how to describe it. We all found it overwhelming, my son most impressed by its technology and the effects attempted. "Immersive experiences" have proliferated in recent years. "Beyond Van Gogh" is only one of several such Van Gogh exhibits, some considerably more extravagant and theatrical, and other artists, including Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali, have also been subjected to the approach. Imagine being immersed in Kahlo's "The Wounded Deer" or Dali's "The Persistence of Memory."
Such exhibits inspire mixed reactions. Loath to have artworks transformed into animated entertainment, purists prefer gazing silently upon the originals. I like that too, though in a museum it often means maneuvering my way around other viewers hoping for a close-up look. One screen in the Van Gogh exhibit claimed that the "unlikely pairing of the digital and the classical allows one to dive into this world of paint, to experience it from the inside, to vibrate with it." It can be argued that immersive viewing is apt to send you back into the art itself, trying to get closer to his artistry, if only on a computer screen. Van Gogh surely absorbed himself deeply in his paintings; perhaps he'd appreciate experiencing such a thorough immersion in them this way.
Notes: A review by Ben Davis of two other Van Gogh Immersive Experiences and a review by Sarah Cascone of the Frida Kahlo exhibit "Frida: La Experiencia Immersiva" can both be found online in artnet news.
Feighan, Maureen. "New 'Beyond Van Gogh' immersive art exhibition fascinates," The Detroit News, June 25, 2021.
Schulman, Sandra. "Beyond Van Gogh: Starry Night, Sunflowers and Immersive Madness," Florida Daily Post, April 15, 2021.