You've seen Van Gogh paintings on walls and in museums. But now's your chance to stand inside one.
The entire room is a canvas. And you’re part of it.
Vibrant brushstrokes swirl upwards and outwards, simultaneously spreading beneath your feet and over your head. Unlike any museum experience you’ve ever been to before, there is no frame and no boundary separating you from the work of a master craftsman.
That’s what it feels like to walk into the "Beyond Van Gogh" exhibit, which opened at University Town Center on March 4. The exhibit, which has traveled all over North America, is in Sarasota for the next month, allowing plenty of time to stand amidst a "Starry Night."
Fanny Curtat, an art historian connected with the exhibit, says that people feel like they know Vincent Van Gogh because he’s achieved critical mass. But when they stand surrounded by his art, they’re treated to an entirely different perspective.
“Oddly enough, people tend to know him for the darkness in his life. All of the pain and the struggle and the poverty,” says Curtat. “All of this is true, but only to a certain extent. And most importantly, that’s not what you see when you look at his work. You see everything that he found to heal himself from this darkness and to transcend that darkness.”
Van Gogh, robbed of fame and notoriety in his life, was enormously prolific during his last decade. Curtat says he did most of his work in the last five years of his life, and he produced more than 70 artworks in the final two months before he died by suicide at age 37.
But in the "Beyond Van Gogh" exhibit, you’re taking a speed run through the life of his artistic career. Around 300 paintings are involved in the shifting display, and you’ll go all the way from his early days as an artist to his dazzlingly short run as a master in 35 minutes.
Curtat, who holds a master’s and a doctorate in art history, says there’s literally no beginning and no end to the exhibit. You can come in at any point and have an incredible experience, but if you time it right, you can see the evolution of his work.
The only surviving photograph of Van Gogh is part of the display, and so are pieces of correspondence with his brother Theo. His early paintings, which haven’t been celebrated as much as his later work, say a lot about what Van Gogh found valuable and beautiful.
“At the beginning, he was learning how to paint,” says Curtat, who was educated at the University of Quebec at Montreal and at Le Sorbonne in Paris.“If I were to show these to people not familiar with his work, chances are they would think it wasn’t a Van Gogh.
"He was already not conventional, already going against what the salon is selling. He’s representing people working the land, people working the soil. That’s what he saw as beautiful; not Venuses coming out of shells. A peasant woman after a hard day’s work with all the strain of the world showing on her face. That’s what he wanted to see.”
The exhibit actually starts in a smaller room where the viewer can read information and gird themselves for the journey they’re about to take. And then there’s a Waterfall room, where visitors begin to see the swirling colors and palette of his paintings.
The third stop is the Immersive Room, where guests can stand amidst the power of his completed works. The scenes shift around you, putting you in the middle of famous paintings and connecting you to a 19th century master with 21st century technology.
Curtat says that much of the magic is a trade secret, but she shares that there are over 40 projectors and that it takes 10 days to set up the installation whenever it travels to a new city. And wherever it goes, art enthusiasts are taken on the same journey.
“As you go, you see the evolution of the brush strokes,” Curtat says of the exhibit. “Then you go to the south of France, and it’s just complementary colors, the explosion. Big strokes that you recognize from 'Starry Night.' You have this frantic pace of his painting.
“You can feel how quickly he wants to go about it. This journey, the idea is to go beyond the darkness of this legend into the work itself and into this evolution toward light.”
Interestingly, Curtat says that everything we know about Van Gogh was the result of chance. More than 80% of Van Gogh’s surviving correspondence was written to his brother Theo, who died just six months after the master in January 1891.
Theo’s wife, Johanna, wound up assiduously collecting the correspondence and translating it from Dutch into English, offering a window into the artist’s emotional makeup.
“We all know all of this about his work and his life because of an 18-year correspondence between the two brothers,” says Curtat. “Theo supported him economically, emotionally, psychologically.
"He worked hard because he had such faith in his brother’s genius. It was really all about providing the best condition for him, and Vincent in exchange was just pouring his soul out to his brother. These letters are just a treasure trove of information.”
Curtat says that Van Gogh’s letters are nearly as evocative as his paintings; he’s talking about his philosophy at some points, and at others it’s just childlike wonder at the world.
But all of the time, he’s talking about his art, the impulses that motivated him and ultimately gave him immortality.
It’s that quality that makes Van Gogh’s work all the more personal.
Curtat says that she’s never known a Van Gogh specialist who doesn’t get emotional at some point when discussing him, and his artwork has become all the more accessible because people can identify with him.
“He’s one of these icons that everybody knows. Everybody can relate,” she says. “He’s somebody who’s fighting his own demons. It’s the power of his work that speaks true, the message he had of finding beauty in ordinary settings. A pair of boots. A bag of onions on the table, showcasing what the world has to offer as a remedy for what the world also has to offer in terms of darkness.”
It’s that balance of light and darkness that gives his work even more relevance today.
People are looking for something to cling to, and they’re looking for beauty all around them.
But if you wanted to see a bunch of Van Gogh artworks, you’d have quite a journey ahead of you.
His paintings are scattered across museums all over the world.
If you want to see all of them in one place, says Curtat, "Beyond Van Gogh" might be your best opportunity.
“Scale is everything,” she says. “If you have a small artwork, you have to lean over it to have a more personal connection to it. If it’s something huge, it overpowers you. You’re going to feel smaller, maybe awestruck. Bringing it to a whole new scale changes entirely the way you get into the work. If you don’t know a lot about him, it’s just great to discover his work like this.
"My hope is that people will develop this connection, and next time they get the chance to be in a town that has a Van Gogh on its wall, they’ll be curious about experiencing that too.”
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