The mythology surrounding Vincent van Gogh is so well established—tortured soul, starving artist, suicide—that it’s easy to let the Dutch painter’s personal struggles overwhelm his work. The facts are, he created more than 2,000 artworks in a decade, including more than 800 oil paintings, most of them during the last two years of his life. (He died at the age of 37 in 1890, a relative unknown.)
There seems little doubt that Van Gogh would have been totally amazed at his present-day fame, and probably overwhelmed at the popularity of the Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience shows that have taken much of North America by storm over the past year. Now we have the chance to join the throngs who take part in the experience, with opening day for the exhibit March 4 at the “Starry Night Pavilion” at University Town Center (195 University Town Center Drive).
Those who go can experience the show in different ways. If you prefer to read up a bit on Van Gogh and his life before you head to the vast space where the primary portion of the exhibit exists, you can do that in the first couple of galleries, where background information and quotes fill you in. If you’d rather put yourself first in the space where approximately 300 of the artist’s works combine with music, movement and technology, and then walk back to the entrance to expand on what you’ve just seen and felt, you can do that, too.
The immersive loop of the experience in the grander space does not necessarily hit you at first with the expected rich blues, greens and yellows we most often associate with the artist. As I walked through during a media preview, what I saw first was some of his darker, more somber work—the faces of peasants, farmhouses and outbuildings, gray and black landscape, not just on the walls but flooding over onto the floors and benches. Only gradually do the intense, vibrant colors appear, in images from the South of France where Van Gogh spent his last days.
“Naturally, we have to include Starry Night, Sunflowers, the works known best,” said art history consultant Fanny Curtat when I talked with her at the preview. “But we [members of the French-Canadian team of creative director Mathieu St. Arnaud and Normal Studio in Montreal] also chose the works for the stories they tell.”
Along with the visuals, the score playing softly in the background helps to place Van Gogh’s work in a timeless context. “We don’t just play Satie or Debussy,” said Curtat. You’ll also hear music of the 20th and 21st centuries, including some with a jazz or pop feel.
Creation of the exhibit began in October 2020, when the world was hard hit by Covid-19. “We wanted to provide a bubble of joy for people,” said Curtat. After all, Van Gogh may be so well-known partly because of his suffering, “but he transcended that,” she says. “He fought to represent the world as he saw and felt it.”
Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience continues through April 24. To learn more and purchase tickets, visit vangoghsarasota.com.