Over 130 years since Vincent Van Gogh painted his last painting — now believed to be Tree Roots — the mercurial Dutchman’s extraordinary works and sensational life story continue to draw millions of visitors each year to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. One need look no further for proof of the artist’s preeminence as a popular attraction than the five separate Van Gogh exhibitions currently crisscrossing the U.S. and cities around the globe.
Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience recently opened at D.C.’s Rhode Island Center and is among those competing exhibitions offering events in several cities at once. So if it seems that Van Gogh experiences are sprouting like sunflowers up and down the Eastern seaboard, it’s because they are, just without Van Gogh’s actual Sunflowers in attendance. But what is an exhibition dedicated to one of history’s all-time great artists without any of his paintings or sketches physically in the building?
Sprawling around a 20,000 square-foot former big box retail space, the D.C. edition of Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience at its best serves up a pleasing three-course meal of atmosphere, color, digital imagery, and emotion projected in 360-degrees across ginormous screens. The meal commences, however, with its least captivating course, a virtual gallery of Van Goghs printed on what appear to be silk screens, arranged amidst biographical and descriptive notecards. As an introduction to what the real paintings look like, these prints, rendered in beautiful detail, still don’t capture the texture or aliveness of oils. Among this group, only the reproduction of his Starry Night Over the Rhone comes close to replicating the dancing light and movement that leap off a Van Gogh canvas.
Just past the prints, a small alcove offers hints of the main course to come. A tranquil pocket of space outfitted with a bench invites viewers to take a moment to contemplate Van Gogh’s words, voiced by an English-accent actor, as a holographic vase erupts in a splendid array of digital blossoms deconstructed. Images float apart and around the space like butterflies in this small-scale iteration of what artistic directors Mario Iacampo and Orphée Cataldo and their team produce on an impressively massive scale in part two of the exhibit: “Complete Immersion.”
Inside this vast space, surrounded by 15,000 square feet of screens, entire paintings slip and slide around you, as details dart across the walls, floor, and every surface. Under the dazzling light and art show, scored to spirited classical music, viewers can lounge on a pillow or bench and let starry nights and wheat fields wash over them. For aficionados of Van Gogh’s work, the show delivers, as advertised, an exciting new way to experience his art, in a temple devoted to him. Is it like “stepping into a painting?” Not exactly, but influencers eager to snap their portraits alongside Van Gogh’s doleful mug are invited to take their best shots as ambassadors of the Immersive Experience.
Selfies are off the table for the exhibition’s third course, a virtual reality visit to Van Gogh’s world, available for a slight premium over the regular ticket price. Wearing a VR headset, attendees are whisked away on a ten-minute journey to experience a day in Van Gogh’s life in Arles, France, where he painted some of his most famous works. Floating from his bedroom inside the Yellow House where he stayed, viewers stroll around the village to take in the landscapes and vistas that inspired the artist.
Though far from photo-realistic, the 360-degree VR graphics are transporting, as is the entire experience in a way the artist himself could never have foreseen. The beauty in Van Gogh’s creations and the anguish behind them are as indelible in virtual space as they are in any real painting hung on a wall.
Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience runs through January 2022 at the Rhode Island Center, 524 Rhode Island Ave. NE. Tickets start at $36 for adults, $19.90 for children, with Family Pass and VIP Access options. Visit www.vangoghexpo.com.
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