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Home / Step inside Vincent van Gogh’s art in Davenport exhibition
Step inside Vincent van Gogh’s art in Davenport exhibition
Art historian discusses immersive experience swirling from mind to painting and beyond
To step into the artistry of Vincent van Gogh is to step into his mind and life, a past that’s very much present.
And that’s what makes “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” so magical, said Fanny Curtat, 37, of Montreal, the art historian who helped develop the project.
The exhibition, in which viewers walk among 300 of van Gogh’s works projected on the walls, panels and floors, is on view through July 20 in the Great Hall at Davenport’s RiverCenter, 136 E. Third St.
What you’ll see
The exhibition shows different aspects of his life and life’s work.
Visitors begin by entering the Introduction Hall, where they can see excerpts from van Gogh’s letters and read his own words.
“We have a unique case in art history where we have such a treasure trove of information about his life, about his connection to his brother Theo, because of their letters that they exchanged over 18 years — you really feel that. Because of their strong bond between the brothers, you have an access to his soul to his mind to his heart, and that's something so, so incredible,” Curtat said. “ ... You do feel a connection with them, so we felt that was a great way of starting the experience.
“It's about having a connection to Vincent and seeing that he’s still very much relevant — that the self-doubt and angst that he's going through are things that are familiar to most of us.”
If you go
What: “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience”
Where: RiverCenter’s Great Hall, 136 E. Third St., Davenport
When: Through July 20, 2023; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; timed entries every 15 minutes, with last entry one hour before closing time each day
Tickets: $29 and up for adults; $19.99 and up for ages 5 to 15; vangoghquadcities.com/tickets/#/
Then visitors will step into the Immersive Room, “where everything moves,” Curtat said, describing it as “a little bit trippy.” The space is dedicated to his work, and is a loop of about 35 minutes.
“Usually, people stay for more, because it’s very seamless,” she said. “ ... There’s a progression to his work. You really go on a journey. You can set foot in that room at any moment, and you’ll be part of it.”
The exhibition requires 30,000 square feet and changes according to the configuration of each venue.
The entire experience takes about an hour. With timed entries every 15 minutes, viewers won’t be packed shoulder to shoulder.
“You’re never in a crowded space where you feel like you can’t enjoy the projections around you,” Curtat said.
It also appeals to all ages, she noted, and has a soundtrack spanning the decades, further bridging past and present.
“It's great for kids because they keep running around. They follow the brush strokes, they're twirling around the petals. There's something very playful and very dreamlike about this way of experiencing things. And so for people who might be intimidated by museums, this might be a great introduction,” she said.
“But my hope is that with an experience like this, they'll develop a connection to van Gogh, and maybe (the) next time they have a chance to go see an original on a museum wall, they’ll be curious about that, as well.
“These experiences are not meant to replace a museum experience. There’s nothing like an original,” Curtat explained. “It’s really about enhancing. It’s about bringing more, and it’s about bringing it differently, to allow more people in, and to really develop all different kinds of experiences that we can have with a particular type of art.”
From the beginning
Produced by Paquin Entertainment Group, headquartered in Canada, “Beyond Van Gogh” has sold more than 5 million tickets globally, and typically sells out in each stop.
The project is the brainchild of creative director Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio. They’re the experts on the digital aspects, Curtat said. She was brought on board to provide the artistic expertise on van Gogh, a Post-Impressionist painter born in the Netherlands in 1853, who lived and worked in France until his death in 1890.
“He revolutionized painting because he connected the dots between Impressionism and Expressionism,” Curtat said. “(He) went about his style and his painting with a true passion that wanted to forego any classical training that was happening in France at that time.
“(He) wanted to make art for generations to come. He wanted to catch an energy. It's not about painting what he saw, so much as what he perceived. It's a painter of emotion. It's a painter of energy. And that's really what we should remember about him.”
The project team “knew of him of course,” Curtat said. “They were fascinated by his work, but they needed help to pinpoint which works were important; what story we could tell; how is it still relevant; how these very much contemporary tools could help retell the story to a wider audience, but also have something appealing for people who are already familiar with his work. And so the idea was really to dig deeper into the history side of things.”
The result was a collaboration between the artistic director, lead motion designer and Curtat, “to really find this common ground between this wealth of knowledge that we have from van Gogh, because he’s so widely popular,” she said.
A prolific letter writer as well as painter, the Dutch-born van Gogh left a rich legacy of written words and artistic works, so it was up to the exhibition designers to use their tools to tell the story.
It was a quick six-month project which fell during the pandemic, when the team members were working from home, communicating online. That level of anxiety figured into the process as well as the finished product, which debuted April 15, 2021, in Miami.
“Here’s an artist who is famous for going through crisis and upon crisis in his life, and yet can find beauty in the most minute details around him — a pair of boots by the door, a bag of onions on the table — things about his day-to-day life that were so beautiful and poetic,” Curtat said.
That mirrored what the designers were doing, she noted, “as we were cooped up in our own bedrooms and offices and at home. And it became very clear that he was incredibly relevant because of that, because there’s a real power in this idea of transcending the ordinary into something incredibly beautiful into something extraordinary.
“These lessons that van Gogh had about the power of color, the power of nature, the healing quality of nature, and all of these things that are part of his work. And that became even more relevant with everything we were going through, so it was a really interesting creative process.”
The exhibition is bursting with sunflowers, one of van Gogh’s favorite subjects.
“Sunflowers are definitely his flowers,” Curtat said. “There’s something rough about them, a little bit rustic, which he appreciated. But they are also a good example of his way of thinking about colors.
“The sunflower turns toward the sun, so it’s the flower of gratitude. It’s the flower of gratefulness. By extension, yellow becomes this color of life and this color of gratitude. He thought about color very much symbolically. He used a lot of blues and yellows, because he used a lot of complementary colors.
“The colors really do the work for him, the way he puts them side by side and not really blending them. He uses color dynamics to create this energy on the surface. The colors are sort of fighting themselves, interacting between themselves, and that creates a lot of tension, a lot of movement on his pieces.
“So that’s why pretty much anybody, even if they don't know a lot about him, will be able to identify a painting of his, because there’s something so unique about his style,” she said.
“Starry Night” has been the star of the show on the exhibition’s various North and South American stops, from Anchorage to Chile.
“That has got to be not only his most famous paintings, but one of the most famous artworks in the world period,” Curtat said. “Not a lot of artwork rival with that level of (acclaim), so that’s mainly what people expect — and rightly so. It is stunning.
“There’s an energy to that painting that you remember before anything else of it. People don’t remember the village that’s in the bottom of it. They remember this swirling sky, this energy, this movement, so people really do connect with it for a reason.”
Other conversations swirl around what she calls “the ear-cutting incident,” in which the troubled artist cut off his left ear with a razor, after a heated argument with Paul Gauguin, who declared he was moving out of their shared quarters.
Van Gogh lost so much blood that he nearly died. “It scared him, and he walked himself to an asylum to get help,” Curtat said, noting that he developed an infection that hampered his recovery.
“But there is so much more to him,” she said, and that “Starry Night,” along with “everything else he’s done, exemplifies that.”
“He's known for the darkness in his life. And yet, when you look at his work, what you remember … is the light. It’s the power, it’s the energy, it’s a life-force, almost. And so that’s really what we wanted to do with this show. It’s called ‘Beyond Van Gogh’ because it’s really about going beyond this legend of his,” she said.
“There is nothing to deny about the darkness that he’s been through. He's been through a lot and that’s undeniable. But to reduce his work and his life to the lowest point of his life — a crisis that he sees as a major crisis that he feared, that he doesn’t remember anything of — that’s not what his work was about.
“His work is not about the darkness. It’s not a mirror of darkness — it’s ways of getting out of it. It’s about healing. It’s about changing. It’s about appreciation of life, and life and beauty and power and healing,” Curtat said.
“And so all of these things are really what we do as … a life force for the show itself.”
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