On the Far Side of Van Gogh
My body was covered in colors dull bright, a French countryside cottage built on my chest. And my love looked so lovely in an almond blossom rain.
The blossoms came into motion, swirling by the hundreds across the expanse of self, floor, and walls. All the inches of our bodies clothed the projection as evening wear.
The exhibition was titled "Beyond Van Gogh." Touted as an immersive art experience, the traveling display came to the Virginia Beach Convention Center, providing chance for diversion and hopeful immersion into an international art experience. The show globe treks, having sold 5 million tickets so far, if you believe what you read on the internet. We first saw it on the TV, when Emily and her beau flirted through Van Gogh in the show. The set scenes from the gal in Paris captured the exhibition as stunningly dark and beautifully surrounding.
Stepping into the main gallery space, our first impressions were of being in someone’s garage.
The needed extreme in contrast not heeded in the high light spilling ceilings of the Convention Center space. The projections lacked both the clarity and color quality to wow. The entrance corridor had already underwhelmed with lightbox panels shining low grade printing. The darkness, though, set a tone for a welcoming quiet, the floating displays disseminating Van Gogh’s history through his letters to his brother. If you’ve seen the play, Vincent, you already understand the idea of the panels. In my mind, I could hear Leonard Nimoy reading the passages.
The huge display is a clever mixture of projection and music. The images in constant motion, either of moving stills or digital animations. We liked the blossom idea, enjoyed when the paintings were in full display, and agreed adding the blinking eyes to the portraits was just plain creepy. We struggled in our initial disappointment, my own thoughts wandering to realize I was standing in the same part of the Convention Center where I waited for my COVID shot.
The show did offer a welcome hour of peace. The sprawl of imagery was accompanied by an atmospheric musical mix. Whether lifted with classical or new age, lulled with the sultry trumpet of Baker, the feign of McLean, the pleasant sounds did please. And I noticed most people were dressed nicely, and it felt nice to be doing the same. A little bit of nice goes a very long way in these times when not so nice feels the norm.
In my personal unwinding, memories flashed. The way I would cover my right ear as family, drunk on vodka from steins meant for beer, violently screamed at sports on the TV. When I was wishing there was a window in my room in the ICU. Those delicious potatoes in the little restaurant in Paris. The best potatoes ever. And I thought about honesty. Vincent was honest. His paintings as honest as his pain. Perhaps, if only for brief moments, there was genuine immersion.
And I remembered art that moved me. Nighthawks, in Chicago. The Agnew Clinic, in Philly. Waterlilies, in Musee de l’Orangerie. My God, those Waterlilies. Those times when you see a painting you’ve seen a thousand times and then you see it for real and epiphanize you have never seen it before.
Starry Night Over the Rhone, in Musee d’Orsay. The Van Gogh brought stillness to the room. To the heart. “To express hope by a handful of stars…,” he wrote to Theo. It wasn’t anything resembling the selfie shit-shows we had encountered in the Louvre. Dozens of us stood in awe of colors we had never imagined. I didn’t need to go beyond. Great art changes you.
"Beyond Van Gogh" wasn’t worth the 100 bucks. This felt more far side than beyond. The space is too bright, the imagery too dull, and I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. A $25 ticket instead of the $50 would have been appropriate. Though the tunes were nice, the speakers had that too small distortion and trebly ring. More bass, please. Always. More bass.
We were thankful, though, for our time on the far side of Van Gogh. Since M had gone around the sun, we decided to have a starry night, and maybe it would be like Emily and her beau. And my body became slowly covered in colors dull bright, a French countryside cottage built on my chest. And my love looked so lovely in an almond blossom rain.
1. All photos by Author.
© Copyright William Hazel, 2023