The exhibition is a rolling projection, lasting around 35 minutes. You can walk in at any time and wait until it repeats itself or just stay for as long as you’d like. I’ll be discussing the experience from a ‘start’ and ‘end’ to the projection but this might not be the point you walk in at.
The exhibition starts by taking us through a journey, quotes from van Gogh structure our way through. ‘What would life be if we had no courage to do anything’ frames the walls. On the main wall, a portrait of a young van Gogh looks over us, whilst the other three walls are filled with his sketches, his handwriting scrawls his letters down from the ceiling and across the floor. We see initial sketches of famous paintings and a glimpse of the tree from Starry Night. This is a great beginning to the exhibition as we are looking at the man himself, and the unfinished, most personal aspects of his artistic process as well as his most sincere thoughts and feelings from his letters. It feels like this opening emphasises that we are here to experience not only his artwork but Vincent himself.
The walls transition now into portraits. ‘I’ll pick up my pencil that I put down in my great discouragement and I’ll get back to drawing’. Now his sketches are coming to life as if he is drawing them straight onto the walls. These sketches are overlooked by his self-portraits on the main wall, as they blossom into the next, he ages and his colouring changes. Frames now appear on the walls with moving images; people, plants, boats, blossoms, trees, windmills and waves all moving slightly. The exhibition emphasises the uniqueness and individuality of his brushstrokes and the movement that he creates in his paintings. Seeing them move and transform allows the audience to see the paintings in a way that can never be experienced in a gallery with the real painting. ‘I dream of painting, then I paint my dream’ A rather fitting quote, as the paintings themselves are presented in such a dreamlike manner in the exhibition, and the audience can feel so connected to them, in a way rarely experienced when seeing paintings through a screen, or even in real life. I do believe the exhibition is better experienced by those who have seen some of the paintings in galleries before, as it not only unites your feelings and previous experience with the actual paintings with this new presentation but also emotes a new understanding of them.
The paintings in frames transform into portraits. Interestingly, we see them morph not only into other paintings but many of them morph into other portraits of the same people. Well-known characters such as the Postman appear and we can watch how not only the characters develop through the different portraits but also how Van Gogh’s style does too. Like the baby, who morphs through infancy to being a toddler and young bo, his style and colour evolve which truly makes this an immersive experience. It is rare that so many of his paintings of similar or identical subject matter are displayed together in order for the audience to truly compare them, but here in this exhibition the audience can truly compare and see small differences between such paintings. All whilst, Van Gogh is projected centre stage, morphing through his self-portraits, almost looking down at the audience and his work. Not only are the paintings changing in the frames, but they switch to other collections of like paintings, so you can sit in your deck chair and look wherever you’d like as each frame does show all the different portraits one after another just in a different order, so you are not constantly turning to try and see everything.
Next, the exhibition takes a turn, Almond Blossom fills each frame and then spread across the walls until the frames disappear. The illusion of the moving gallery is now over, and the audience is now immersed in the painting. Once the walls are completely taken over the painting truly comes to life, petals fall around projected onto the arches, the floor, the empty deck chairs and our laps. It is at times hard to remember that this is a projection. The walls fade into fields and we see carts moving, swallows are circling us at the tops of the church walls. A horse pulls a cart along the far lanes of the painting around the entire room. It feels like the hay is blowing through the air, despite it only being projected onto the floor. Your mind truly fills the gaps between this projection and what it must feel like to have been there, while he was painting. It is a wholly sensory experience where they give us the visual and small auditory clues and the brain fills in the rest of the story until you have the entire picture. ‘I know for sure that I have an instinct for colour and that it will come to me more and more, that painting is in the very marrow of my bones’ the audible and visual quotes guide us, as if Vincent himself is taking us by the hand.
The exhibition is truly a delight for fans of Van Gogh, especially when you see elements of recognisable or favourite paintings begin to show through others. The arches and architecture of the church only enhance the experience, in some cases, they fade into the background and others they become part of it. Starry Night envelops the room, the lights flicker on in the houses as the sky gets darker. The large tree is curved around the base of one of the large arches, making it three-dimensional. The experience is truly immersive as the audience becomes part of the painting, not only is the movement of Van Gogh’s brush strokes animated across the walls but the stars spin projected onto the floor so that it feels more like you are in the painting itself than seeing it as in a gallery. This section of the exhibition, where the room becomes the painting is certainly the most incredible part. It is where the projection can shine as an incredible, mesmerising and worthwhile experience rather than just a showing of paintings that aren’t there.
The room is then enveloped in golden, heartwarming yellow that engulfs the walls like fire as the image transitions to Starry Night Over The Rhône. This is one of the most ‘immersive’ parts of the exhibition as while some boats sway, one sails the perimeter of the room. ‘I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day’, that it certainly is in this exhibition. Where you can almost feel the evening breeze on your skin, and a church becomes cold water and night sky without you even remembering where you are.
Unfortunately, the worst section of the exhibition follows. In the most intense and unnecessary use of creative freedom I’ve witnessed in any exhibition in homage to an artist, Van Gogh’s struggles with his mental health are expressed by a mannequin-esque statued form being circled and chained by paintings. The exhibition would as a whole, been much stronger and much better off without this scene. Thankfully, this weird experience ends with rain, and transitions into more sombre, grey and more industrial paintings, with music that sets this tone. ‘Sadness will last forever’. The experience ‘ends’ as we, the audience, sit in the fields with crows circling above us. Leaving the audience in a forlorn atmosphere that allows us to truly reflect on his art, his life, his experience and also, the exhibition itself
I’d highly recommend this exhibition to those who perhaps feel like they’re missing the hype when it comes to viewing art, and especially for art fans who have friends who ‘just don’t get’ your interest in art. Instead of taking them to galleries and trying to explain your love for art, take them to this exhibition and let them step into the painting as an enveloping encounter with what is normally scores of paint behind some glass.
Despite my distaste for the short statue section, I truly believe this to be one of the best Van Gogh exhibitions that I have been to, and especially the best in the projection genre. The gallery section where portraits morph into other portraits is significant and of interest, as I believe it brings to light his tendency to painting the same people more than once, as these multiples are often split between galleries and across the globe. I do wish that more of the exhibition was in the format of the whole room being enveloped in one painting, as it is the most emotive and impressive element of the exhibition. I wholeheartedly recommend it as a must-see exhibition.
Featured image by Holly Palmer