Carolyn and I recently visited the immersive experience (their words, not mine) Beyond van Gogh, available at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford through October 23. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to write about it.
I have to admit that I often prejudge such experiences as being akin to a cleaned up, dressed up carnival side show, entertaining but not to be taken too seriously. Then I go, and I realize that I’m not being fair. The best do much more than simply entertain me – they move me. The recent show at the Convention Center that displayed oversized images from the Sistine Chapel ceiling was entertaining and thought-provoking. Meow Wolf in Santa Fe was a different kind of immersive experience. In some ways it was safely disorienting, as we walked aimlessly through what seems to be an endless succession of spaces from the past or the future or some fantasy land. It’s challenging and entertaining.
Beyond van Gogh moved me. Images created by Vincent van Gogh are, I would guess, among the most well-known images in the western world. Google “most recognizable paintings” and Starry Night comes up #3 on one list. I suspect some familiarity with van Gogh and his paintings enhances the experience, but I doubt it’s necessary. It’s probably useful at least to know that van Gogh had a troubled life and suffered from one or more mental illnesses.
Beyond van Gogh moved me by cleverly and boldly but gently bombarding me with multiple brain inputs: Written words, spoken words, music, color, large-scale images of familiar and unfamiliar van Gogh paintings, and creative animation (if you look carefully, van Gogh winks at you). It immerses you in an ever-changing world of light and sound, and it engages you completely in the experience it creates A lone white petal drifting in the air becomes first 20 or 30 petals and then a storm; eventually a blizzard of petals is everywhere, and then it’s gone. In another era, someone viewing the show might simply have said, “Far out!”; indeed, there probably are visitors to Beyond van Gogh who enhance their experience with chemicals imported from Massachusetts. I can assure you that stone-cold sober, it’s still a trip.
It moved me because taken as a whole, the experience made me feel van Gogh’s intense passion, his absolutely agonizing self-doubts, and the creative explosion of color and beauty that burst from him during his creative periods. By seeing his brush strokes in larger-than-life size, somehow I feel his urgency as he tried to capture the beauty he saw. There wasn’t time for precision, the view and the colors were fleeting, and he needed to get it all down, right now. And his passion for life comes through in a dozen or more portraits of people he knew; warm but not sentimental pictures of people who may have had a hard time or two but who persevered.
At one point there is nothing but van Gogh self-portraits, another dozen or more, a man looking at himself (or is he looking at me?), trying to figure himself out. Taken together, all those images somehow momentarily let me look into van Gogh’s eyes, maybe even into his thoughts.
Will you like it? I have no idea. Maybe you’ve just spent a couple of minutes reading the ravings of a cultural neanderthal who happened to learn his way around a keyboard. It’s certainly commercial art; someone’s making money creating something like this. Commercial or not, it’s art nevertheless. And being commercial doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Many people have worked tirelessly and with great skill to put together an experience that can transport us for a few minutes.
If you go, be prepared to do a little reading at the beginning. It looks like a lot. Some people digest every word, others simply aren’t that interested. The more you read the displayed passages, the more you will understand about the mind of the man who created the images you are about to see. Read at least enough to get a sense of what they’re talking about, be it life, death, love, color, unhappiness. Take what you read and whatever you already know about the guy (yeah, the ear and all that), and move on. After the reading room, you will go into an empty room with abstract images being projected on the walls and with doorways for you to proceed on to the main exhibit room. You’re free to move on any time you would like, but I’d suggest spending a few minutes just looking at the images as they move by, and listening. Those abstract images are cleansing the palate, so to speak, so your retinas are prepared to take in the spectacle you’re about to see.
When you’re ready, leave the empty room and enter the mind of van Gogh. It’s a treat.