The ‘Van Gogh Alive’ Exhibition
Like many of us, when I came across the Van Gogh Alive experience advertised on my Instagram feed, my first thought was ‘I NEED to go to that’. As I scrolled through the images, I saw rooms full of sunflowers, floor to ceiling images of his ‘Almond Cherry Blossom’ painting and crowds of people looking up in awe. That’s it, I was hooked. Checked the price… £23.50. That’s a bit steep on a student budget, even for a Van Gogh fan. With all this talk about ‘making art accessible for all’, the art that everyone wants to see isn’t always that accessible. If it was a small independent business charging that price for a beautiful handcrafted pot or print then I would happily pay £23.50 to take something lovely home with me – at Van Gogh Alive, if you want to take anything home with you other than memories, you have to purchase it at the gift shop.
Fortunately, I was treated to a ticket for my birthday a few weeks later. Inside the purpose-built tent – which I admit looks a lot like those pop-up ice-skating rinks you see spring up in cities at Christmas time – we shuffled through the queueing gates quickly and with zero problems. Greeted by lovely staff, we were told to wander around the introductory room where they had a timeline of his life and each of the paintings to find out more about him and then head through to the show. As someone who has watched ‘Loving Vincent’ (a hand-painted feature-length animated film about the life of Van Gogh) around 5 times, there was no introduction needed, so we headed straight to the good stuff.
As expected, it was floor to ceiling Van Gogh. I practically strained my neck trying to take it all in as we walked into the room. Almost every surface was covered with beautiful, bright and saturated colours. Although it is essentially one large room, extra walls and panels had been added in to make it a bit more dynamic and to encourage you to walk around the space. Even areas of the floor had things projected on to. You couldn’t escape it, and as obvious as it sounds, it was so unapologetically Van Gogh.
Close up images of each painting provided an in-depth look into how he painted with such motion. Often when you look at Van Gogh’s work, you see the whole painting in a gilded frame and think ‘wow, that’s lovely’, but when you are confronted with the intimacy of each brushstroke, you see that he has painted shadows with turquoise, violet and bright red. He looked at a pile of pears, or a wheat field and thought ‘how do I make this even more beautiful?’ Instead of painting what he saw with his eyes, he painted the beauty of what he saw in his mind’s eye.
Several projections in the room were animated, and I assume this combined with the selection of classical music in the background was what made this experience ‘Alive’. The animations were subtle enough to almost go unnoticed, but as you looked around and caught glimpses of falling petals or swaying trees, you could almost imagine yourself sitting amongst the landscape itself. I’ll admit it was a bit of a novelty, but it was delightful nonetheless.
Intermittently, some of the screens turned pitch black and reappeared with quotes to remind us about the difficult life that Van Gogh led. As a man who is well known for struggling deeply with mental illness for most of his life, he is always the first person we think of when we say ‘troubled artist’, a phrase I really dislike, but unfortunately bears some truth throughout history, all the way up to the present day. It seems that often some of the most beautiful work stems from a darkened place. A quote that I think sums this up really well is one that was projected towards the end of the show which read – “I have put my heart and soul into my work, and lost my mind in the process”. For those of us not familiar with his work (and even those who are) it is safe to say that is Van Gogh in a nutshell. In my opinion, every painting he created has the depth, magnitude and soul of a real person, but to immerse yourself in both life and art with such passion will take its toll on anyone.
For something that was supposed to be an ‘immersive’ experience, only two out of my five senses were immersed; sight and sound. The classical music in the background slowly faded from Chopin to Debussy, to Beethoven, with whimsical French accordion numbers dotted in between. It was all very fitting. However, I expected there to be the scent of fresh sunflowers wafting in or perhaps a pretend wheatfield to glide through. My friend even suggested that they should have had fake Van Gogh ears fall from the ceiling – although I will admit that might have been overkill. Personally, I felt like it needed something a little more to be classed as ‘immersive’. The only saving grace was the sunflower tunnel, which I did venture into to get a photo for Instagram (typical 20-something-year-old, am I right?), but I feel like that was put in at the end for that purpose, not necessarily to add to the experience. We also stopped off at a virtual drawing workshop where we grabbed a pencil, paper and an easel and had to follow a film of a professional artist as they redrew the ‘Bedroom in Arles’ – not with much success, despite having spent 3 years studying for a degree in Illustration.
When it had finished, I purchased a poster on our way out and that was that, back out into the freezing November air as if I hadn’t just experienced all of my favourite Van Gogh works all at once. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that it was over, not because of the Van Gogh Alive experience but because I deeply appreciate the artist and his art. Having spoken to other people since I visited, it seems that people are either blown away or not too bothered. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that the thing that makes the Van Gogh Alive experience utterly amazing is Van Gogh, his art and the rarity of being able to experience his work up-close, not the Van Gogh Alive experience as a whole. Take from this what you will, but (if you can afford it) I believe every arty experience is worth engaging with.
You can visit the Van Gogh Alive event at MediaCityUK until January 23rd.
Our guest blogger is Amelia Land: “My name is Amelia, I’m a third-year BA Illustration and Animation student studying at MMU. My practice is often experimental, utilising moving-image to tell stories or reinventing traditional illustration to challenge our thought processes. Pursuing a career in Creative Direction makes me a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’, so I love getting involved in absolutely anything creative! Cotton On MCR provides me with the opportunity to work with like-minded people and share my thoughts with the world.” @amelialand_artdirection