Has Alexandra
In Los Angeles, "Immersive Van Gogh," a high-tech, multimedia celebration of the work of renowned post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, takes place in the former home of the iconic Amoeba Music store on Sunset Boulevard.

Off the wall: Van Gogh’s art comes to life in immersive exhibit

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The immersive exhibit of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, playing on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, is part of a hugely popular global trend in projected art produced by mostly non-museum, for-profit companies.

In the Los Angeles production, the main event is a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, surround showing of Van Gogh images produced from 64 projectors that run on a continuous loop. Visitors, themselves splashed with the images, sit on socially distanced cubes to watch a mashup of masterpieces, morphing from one to the next, in which crows fly, windmills turn, clouds shift, and irises grow.

Why We Wrote This

Art is leaping off museum walls in a wave of exhibits that turn Van Gogh’s masterpieces into high-tech, multimedia productions. For our reporter, the immersive experience in Los Angeles prompted her to rethink the meaning of authenticity.

The soundtrack – ranging from Edith Piaf to Modest Mussorgsky – is integral to the production. At the show’s end, visitors applauded with enthusiasm – and even whooped.

Afterward, Thomas Garbrecht, browsing in the gift shop, said he loved the show. “I felt put into the art,” he added. 

I had wondered how giant video projections could possibly compare with a face-to-face encounter with authentic works of art. But after I watched the show and talked with visitors, I realized I was asking the wrong question. This isn’t about a comparison with “the real thing.” It’s a variation on a theme, a building on what’s come before.

Shortly before the grand opening of the animated “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit in Los Angeles, I visited the Getty Museum to connect with the real thing. I got up close to “Irises,” awestruck at just how much energy and expression he could pack into such a small space.

The brilliantly colored painting spilled over with life, and brought me back to my 20s, when I traveled to New York for a one-time blockbuster exhibit, “Van Gogh at Arles.” Put on by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984, the show featured more than 140 paintings and drawings centered on the nearly 15 months the post-impressionist spent in that small city in southern France. It was the zenith of his short life.

To walk through the Met’s galleries of sun-drenched wheat fields and haystacks, to see how larded the Dutch painter’s brush strokes actually are, to meet the brightly colored and stylized townspeople, was to directly experience the artistic genius of Vincent van Gogh. A collection of self-portraits, including the depiction of himself with his bandaged ear, stirred my emotions. Such intensity. Such courage. And sadness, too, at his mental struggles and eventual suicide.

Why We Wrote This

Art is leaping off museum walls in a wave of exhibits that turn Van Gogh’s masterpieces into high-tech, multimedia productions. For our reporter, the immersive experience in Los Angeles prompted her to rethink the meaning of authenticity.

As I stood before those marvelous irises at the Getty, I thought forward to the immersive exhibit I was about to experience in Hollywood: How could giant video projections possibly compare with a face-to-face encounter with the authentic works? But after I watched the show and talked with visitors, I realized I was asking the wrong question. This isn’t about a comparison with “the real thing.” It’s a variation on a theme, a building on what’s come before. Writers, artists, and composers are influenced by others. Van Gogh himself did interpretations and translations of other artists’ work and found inspiration in Japanese prints, which he recreated.

“This all comes together in what I see as a new genre, a new way of encountering art,” combining art imagery, film, and a walk-through experience, said Corey Ross, the show’s co-producer, at the grand opening on Aug. 4.

It’s also a business.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Guests walk through the exhibit "Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" ahead of its opening to the general public at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California, July 19, 2021. No fewer than five companies are producing “experiences” of the artist in dozens of cities across North America.

Art for all ages – and for profit

The show, playing in the former home of the iconic Amoeba Music store on Sunset Boulevard, is part of a hugely popular global trend in projected art produced by mostly non-museum, for-profit companies. Claude Monet, Gustav Klimt, and Frida Kahlo have all made it to the gigantic-projection format. Like his sky in “The Starry Night,” Van Gogh shows are blanketing the universe, with no fewer than five companies producing “experiences” of the artist in dozens of cities across North America.

“Immersive Van Gogh,” produced by Lighthouse Immersive and Impact Museums, was designed and created by Italian film producer Massimiliano Siccardi and includes music by Italian multimedia composer Luca Longobardi. It stole a scene in the Netflix series “Emily in Paris,” and has sold nearly 3 million tickets since its premiere in Toronto last summer, with basic, timed-entry tickets in Los Angeles going for $49.99 ($29.99 for children). According to its producers, that makes it “the most popular attraction currently in North America.” It’s opened in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco and is scheduled for 16 more cities, including Phoenix and Dallas.

The Los Angeles version, which bears the mark of creative director David Korins (of Broadway’s “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen”), starts with a darkened purple-framed tunnel leading to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhône,” presented as a kind of massive diorama. It then flows into a lobby with a night sky of illuminated neon globes and swirls on the ceiling.

A refreshment bar lines a wall covered with silk sunflowers, while the opposite wall presents some biographical material and a giant, sculpted, color portrait of the artist made of plaster and foam, giving visitors a feel for his thick brush strokes, or impasto. A spiraling sculpture of Van Gogh’s voluminous letters to his younger brother, the art dealer Theo, features a QR code visitors can use to download an app and ask the artist a question. Through artificial intelligence based on the letters, Van Gogh sends a “personalized” response.

The main event is a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, surround showing of Van Gogh images produced from 64 projectors that run on a continuous loop. Visitors, themselves splashed with the images, sit on socially distanced cubes to watch a mashup of masterpieces, morphing from one to the next, in which crows fly, windmills turn, clouds shift, and irises grow.

The soundtrack is integral to the production. When summer bursts onto Van Gogh’s glowing landscapes, Edith Piaf is belting out “Non, je ne regrette rien.” When his bedroom progresses from line drawing to full color, choral music creates an almost holy atmosphere. Dark clanging tones accompany his hospitalization and later self-commitment to an asylum in Saint Rémy, while his creativity during this period is marked by triumphant cymbal crashes from Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” At the show’s end, visitors applauded with enthusiasm – and even whooped.

Has Alexandra
The main event at "Immersive Van Gogh" in Los Angeles is a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, surround showing of Van Gogh images. Visitors sit on socially distanced cubes to watch a mashup of masterpieces, morphing from one to the next, in which crows fly, windmills turn, clouds shift, and irises grow.

“A feast”

“It’s so moving to see all these artists come together to bring his paintings to life,” says Roxy Shih, adding that the art seemed to breathe. Checking out the Van Gogh almond blossom bedding in the gift shop, Ms. Shih, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, recalled seeing only one Van Gogh in person – his bedroom – and that was long ago when she was traveling in Europe. Her companion, Jakuta Ptah, said he had never seen a real Van Gogh. But he described the immersive show as “a feast,” with one delicious course following another. 

Thomas Garbrecht, also browsing in the strategically placed gift shop, commented that he had not been a fan of Van Gogh until he saw his work face-to-face at a gallery. The actual paintings are so much better than the prints, he says. But he also loved the immersive show. It’s “apples and oranges” from a traditional art exhibit – an “extension” of the artist’s work. “I felt put into the art,” he said.

It struck me that the authenticity question can be a red herring, distracting from the idea itself and limiting the number of people who can enjoy that idea. 

Just months before that unforgettable New York exhibit decades ago, I was traveling in France and visited Arles. I looked for Van Gogh’s eye-popping colors in real life, but all I saw was pastel and came away rather disappointed. A decade later, my husband and I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. We both fell in love with a painting of a crab on its back, its orange and black legs a beautiful color contrast against a field of malachite. There was no postcard, so I bought the catalog. For Christmas, I took a mat knife to the crab page and framed it for my husband. It brings us so much joy, even though it’s “only” a print.

When Mr. Garbrecht turned the tables on me and asked what I thought of the immersive show, I didn’t tell him that the bigness and animation didn’t really do much for me – though a 14-year-old boy visiting with his mom told me he thought it was “pretty cool” to see art move.

Instead I shared that I was genuinely touched by the show’s ending, in which self-portraits of the artist – reflected in the water of “Starry Night Over the Rhône” – gradually rise into his magnificent night sky, becoming stars of their own. They speak to the immortality of his art, however presented, that is still reaching millions of people. Combined with the gentle, ascending music of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” the scene worked like a Hollywood ending, and I found my eyes misting up. Manipulative? Yes, and even a bit kitschy. But meaningful, nonetheless.

Before I went to this show, I emailed the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I wondered what they thought of this immersion craze. It turns out, they have an interactive, multimedia exhibit of their own, the official “Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience.” The traveling exhibit was recently in Lisbon and will open in Madrid in September.

The museum has no objections to these other shows; in fact, it welcomes them.

“It’s nice to see how the works by Vincent van Gogh still inspire makers and creatives up to the present day. We therefore look at these initiatives as worthwhile additions. Not everyone is able to travel to our museum in Amsterdam,” a spokesman replied. And yet, the museum hopes these shows will inspire a visit, because “there is nothing more powerful than getting in touch with the real works of art.”

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