Paintings, projections, VR Starry Nights: Can we ever know van Gogh?

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Paintings, projections, VR Starry Nights: Can we ever know van Gogh?
People sit and watch an animated reproduction of “Starry Night Over the Rhône,” part of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” at Skylight on Vesey Street in New York, June 5, 2021. Two immersive van Gogh exhibitions make a critic reflect on her encounters with his paintings and question what it means to have an intimate connection with an artist. Sam Youkilis/The New York Times.

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 2017, I took a trip to Paris, where I greedily took in as much art as I could. In one of the cavernous chambers of the ornate Musée d’Orsay was the Vincent van Gogh exhibition, his framed works (“Starry Night Over the Rhône,” “Bedroom in Arles,” “The Church at Auvers,” a number of his self-portraits) set against a brazen sapphire background rather than the usual chaste white museum walls.

I’ve had a poster of “Starry Night,” gifted to me by a college friend, since my undergraduate dorm days. It hangs framed in my bedroom today. At Musée d’Orsay, I stared at his restless skies and fields, stood for long stretches in front of his self-portraits, rooted in place by the depth of his gaze. And I cried — suddenly, violently. I rushed out. I had never before had such a fierce reaction to a painting, and I have never again since.

What does it mean to build intimacy with an artist — even one separated by over a century of history? And can an artist’s work be reimagined to give an audience in modern times an even more intimate contemporary relationship with the art?

These questions occurred to me as I visited the two competing immersive van Gogh exhibitions in the New York City borough of Manhattan: “Immersive Van Gogh” at Pier 36 on the East River and “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” at Skylight on Vesey. Unlike my emotional high at Musée d’Orsay, these shows left me feeling largely indifferent; in fact, the strongest reaction I had was an alarming sense of intrusion and a disingenuous connection with the artist and his work.

Immersive art installations — and especially immersive theater — trigger my sense of play and activate both the critic and artist in me. There’s a large difference between art conceived to be immersive, though, and art strong-armed into an immersive medium.

But first there was a beautiful translation of van Gogh: The entry ceiling of Pier 36, an imaginative 3D re-creation of “Starry Night” by the designer David Korins, featuring thousands of painted brushes, felt like a beautiful homage — an artist taking on another artist in a work that invites a new perspective, channeling the original work’s style and motifs without aiming to be an exact reproduction.

And yet that just was an appetizer to the main show, a series of connected rooms where people lie and sit and stand watching a video of van Gogh’s works projected in all corners of the room, and that left me numb. And what got to me wasn’t the young women posing for selfies or the older tourists lounging as if at a beach or the restless children scurrying around and climbing on Korins’ large abstract monuments, their reflective surfaces catching all the sunflowers and stars — I’ve encountered much of the same in traditional museum exhibitions of van Gogh’s work.

It was the brevity of the paintings in the video sequence — how quickly they appeared and disappeared. And it was the animations — his mighty cypresses manifesting like apparitions from the mist so that the magic of the work is rendered literally. There’s no room for subtlety or implication here. The beauty of being swallowed by projections of van Gogh’s multicolored fields was subdued by the sloppiness of the translation. I stood off to one side to examine the projections and lost the resolute brushstrokes and tiny gradients of color in the fuzziness of the digitization.

I quickly realized that for a good number of those in the audience, those details didn’t matter. The goal was to use the art as a backdrop for a kind of theatrical experience.

It was precisely this experience that made me uneasy. How do you make theater out of art that is so explicitly contained and individual to van Gogh’s perspective? Despite all the color and character in his work, it would be inaccurate to restyle his paintings as scenery on the quasi-stages that these exhibitions create for audiences to explore not as admirers but active participants.

No matter how many times I toured the chambers, I had the itching sense that it was dishonest to expand a 2 1/2-foot-by-3-foot painting to fit the horizons of a 75,000-square-foot space. The images are expanded and duplicated to create a repetitive panoramic. But there’s a reason for the size of the original work; what the painter wanted to obscure, what parts of the world we’re allowed to see and what we’re left to imagine. A painting hanging on a museum wall is a declarative statement, the artist saying, “Here’s a piece of a world of color, style and form that I’ve given you.”

To try to introduce new depth and interactivity in the artist’s work is to imply that van Gogh’s originals — his brushstrokes, his swaying fields and torrents of blues or the bowing heads of his oleanders — didn’t breathe.

The van Gogh show at Vesey similarly used projections along with 3D deconstructions of his paintings, and I felt more at ease with these impressive life-size re-creations of works such as “Bedroom in Arles” in an exhibition that styled itself a “virtual museum.” But my eyes glossed over the canvas reproductions of the work, so inferior to the real thing: The colors were dull, the textures nonexistent, and the fibers of the canvas shone artificially in the exhibit light.

Not the van Gogh works I remember, but at least here was the art, standing still and on its own, and without interruption. And here was the artist — a timeline of his life, blurbs about his career.

However, I found the final part of the exhibition — a journey via virtual-reality headset through some of the landscapes on which his paintings were based — off-putting. In this digital world, I floated through van Gogh’s house, then out into the street among people milling around, working and chatting. Every once in a while, a frame would appear in front of my field of vision, and the scene would transform, to match its painted counterpart. We’re meant to see the difference between the real world and van Gogh’s world as seen by a mind-reading illustrator. But can any scenic designer really step into the artist’s shoes? Are some chambers in the impenetrable mind of an artist better left untouched?

Of course there’s no way to resurrect the artist, not through the Vesey van Gogh re-creation of his world, nor the Pier 36 exhibition, which also offers an artificial-intelligence van Gogh who will write you a letter (specifically, an algorithm recycles words and phrases from his real-life letters and delivers them in his own handwriting).

In search of the real van Gogh, I made my first post-pandemic museum outing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spent several minutes mesmerized by the wild, almost sensual, twists and curls of the dark leaves in “Cypresses,” in contrast to the powdery blues and whimsical pinks pirouetting in the sky. A group of eager art students in cutoff jeans and Doc Martens gushed about what they had learned from “Wheat Field With Cypresses” while I studied the painting’s sea-green bush leaning to the left as though eavesdropping on a conversation outside of the frame.

As I spent 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 painting’s fleshy pinks and reds give it a more bodily emphasis than his signature cool-blue observation of the natural world. The same sunny yellows and fern greens that look unassuming in his coat and hat make his face look sickly and jaundiced.

What a sad little man — yes, van Gogh’s personal story is a large part of what we relate to, and especially as we come out of a year and a half of pandemic: his life of hardship, including isolation and depression. And, in his case, there was also poverty and ultimately suicide. The van Gogh I met in Paris made me cry, not only because of the beauty of the work but also because I related to his insecurity and self-doubt, his struggle with mental illness. The myth of the tortured artist is so seductive, I clung to it for dear life.

What the two van Gogh immersive exhibitions made me realize is how I made unfounded presumptions of the artist and his work in 2017. I can never pretend to understand the way he thought and saw the world. I only know what I’ve read, and that’s not enough to comprehend the entirety of a life. What I do know is the way his works tap something beautiful and unfathomable in me — the critic, the art lover, the poet. Because at the end of the day, we can’t pretend to know van Gogh, just as we can’t pretend his work can be projected on walls as if it’s the same experience. All we have are the paintings in the frames, but those nights, those cypresses, those sunflowers — they’re more than enough on their own.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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