Paintings, Projections, Virtual Reality Starry Nights: Could We Ever Know Van Gogh?


In 2017, I took a trip to Paris where I greedily made as much art as I could. In one of the cave rooms of the decorated cave Oresay Museum It was a Van Gogh exhibition, his framed works (“Starry Night on the Rhône”, “Bedroom in Arles”, “Church at Auvers”, a series of self-portraits) set against a sultry sapphire background instead of the usual chastity. white museum walls.

I have a “Starry Night” poster that a university friend gave me since my undergraduate dorm days. Today it hangs in my bedroom framed. At the Musée d’Orsay I looked at his restless sky and fields, stopping for long distances before his self-portraits fixed by the depth of his gaze. And I cried – suddenly, violently. I hurried out. Never before had I reacted so violently to a painting, and never since.

What does it mean to be intimate with an artist – or even an artist separated by more than a century of history? And can an artist’s work be reimagined in modern times to give the viewer an even closer contemporary relationship with art?

Immersive art installations – and especially immersive theater – trigger my sense of play and activate both the critic and the artist in me. Still, there’s a big difference between art designed to be immersive and art powerfully armed to an immersive setting.

But first there was a beautiful translation by van Gogh: the entrance ceiling of Pier 36, a creative 3D recreation of “Starry Night” by the designer. David KorinsFeaturing thousands of painted brushes, it felt like a beautiful homage – an artist who took another artist in a work that invited a new perspective, channeling the style and motifs of the original work without intending it to be a complete reproduction.

And yet it was a prelude to the main show, a series of connected rooms where people lay, sitting and projecting a video of van Gogh’s work into every corner of the room, and it numbed me. And what impresses me is the young women posing for selfies, or the old tourists stretching out as if they are lounging on a beach, or the restless children climbing the great abstract monuments of Korins, their reflective surfaces capturing all the sunflowers and stars – I’m the traditional museum of Van Gogh’s works. I encountered the same thing in his exhibitions.

It was the brevity of the pictures in the video sequence – how quickly they appeared and disappeared. And it was animations – powerful cypresses manifesting like ghosts from the fog, so the magic of the work is fully worked out. There is no room for tact or insinuation here. The beauty of being swallowed up by the projections of Van Gogh’s multicolored fields was suppressed by the sloppiness of the translation. I stood aside to examine the projections and lost the steady brushstrokes and small color gradients in the blur of digitization.

I quickly realized that for most of the audience these details are not important. The aim was to use art as a backdrop for some kind of theatrical experience.

It was this experience that made me uneasy. How do you make theater out of art that, from Van Gogh’s point of view, is so blatantly inclusive and individual? For all the color and character in his work, it would be wrong to reformulate his paintings as props in the half-scenes these exhibits create for audiences to explore as active participants, not fans.

No matter how much I toured the rooms, I felt it was dishonest to enlarge a 2 ½ by 3 ft painting to fit the horizon of 75,000 ft. Images are expanded and multiplied to create a repeating panoramic. But there’s a reason for the original work’s size; what the painter wanted to hide, which parts of the world we are allowed to see and what we are allowed to imagine. A painting hanging on the wall of a museum is a declarative statement by the artist saying, “Here is a piece of a world of colour, style and form that I have given you.”

Attempting to add new depth and interactivity to the artist’s work is to imply that van Gogh’s originals—his brushstrokes, swaying fields and floods of blues or bowed heads of oleanders—are not breath-taking.

The van Gogh exhibition at Vesey similarly used projections and 3D deconstructions of his paintings, and I felt more comfortable with these impressive life-size recreations of works such as “The Bedroom in Arles” in an exhibition that describes itself as a “virtual museum”. ” But my eyes gleamed on the canvas reproductions of the work, far inferior to the real thing: the colors were dull, the textures were absent, and the fibers of the canvas glowed artificially in the exhibition light.

Not the van Gogh works I remember, but at least the art stood here, motionless and uninterrupted. And here is the artist – a timeline of his life, brief information about his career.

However, I found the last part of the exhibition – a trip with a virtual reality headset through some of the landscapes on which his paintings are based – repulsive. In this digital world, I glided through van Gogh’s house, then took to the street among people walking around, working and chatting. Every now and then, a frame would appear in front of my field of view and the scene would transform to match its painted counterpart. We need to see the difference between the real world and van Gogh’s world as a mind-reading illustrator sees it. But can any landscape designer really replace the artist? Would it be better to leave some rooms in an artist’s impenetrable mind untouched?

Of course, there is no way to resurrect the artist, neither Vesey van Gogh’s re-enactment of his world, nor the Pier 36 exhibition (which offers an AI van Gogh to write you a letter; an algorithm recycles words and phrases from his real-life letters and submits them in his own handwriting).

In search of the real van Gogh, I made my first post-pandemic museum trip to the Met. I spent a few moments mesmerized by the wild, almost sensual twists and turns of the dark leaves in “Cypresses,” as opposed to powdery blues and whimsical pinks floating in the sky. As a group of aspiring art students dressed in ripped jeans and Doc Martens recount what they learned from “The Cypress Wheat Field,” I studied the painting’s sea-green bush, leaning to the left, overhearing a conversation outside the frame.

While I was spending time with “Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat,” I heard someone behind me say, “What a sad little man.” And of course they were right. The fleshy pinks and reds of the painting give it a more bodily emphasis than its signature cold blue observation of the natural world. The same sunny yellows and ferns that look unassuming in his coat and hat make his face look sickly and wrapped.

What a sad little man – yes, van Gogh’s personal story is a big part of our relationships, especially as we emerge from the one-and-a-half-year pandemic: his life filled with difficulties, including isolation and depression. And in his case, there was poverty and ultimately suicide. Van Gogh, whom I met in Paris, made me cry not only because of the beauty of the job, but also because I was about his insecurity and self-doubt, his struggle with mental illness. The myth of the tortured artist is so seductive that I’ve clung to it my whole life.

But what the two van Gogh exhibitions made me realize was how in 2017 I made unfounded assumptions about the artist and his work. I can never pretend to understand how he thinks and sees the world. I only know what I’ve read, and it’s not enough to grasp a whole life. What I do know is how his work touched something beautiful and incomprehensible in me – the critic, the art lover, the poet. Because at the end of the day, we cannot pretend to know van Gogh, just as we cannot pretend that his work can be projected onto the walls as if it were the same experience. We only have pictures in frames, but those nights, those cypresses, those sunflowers – they’re more than enough on their own.


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