The works of Vincent Van Gogh are known to pull crowds—in 2019, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam drew more than 2 million visitors, and, over the past few years, several immersive experiences in cities ranging from London to Los Angeles have drawn millions more.
This achievement is all the more impressive given that the artist only sold one painting in his lifetime. So, what’s behind his modern-day appeal? When it comes to the immersive exhibitions that are currently on tour, it may be due to the fact that Van Gogh’s works aren’t seen static on gallery walls. Instead, these shows offer dynamic panoramic experiences, submerging viewers into a vibrant, moving world accompanied by astral soundtracks worthy of The Starry Night.
“Ours was the first touring production; we launched in Singapore in 2011,” says Rob Kirk, head of traveling exhibitions at Grande Experiences, a Melbourne-based company that has so far brought Van Gogh Alive to 75 cities. Kirk believes the success of the exhibition is down to the artworks’ vibrant complementary colors—first considered shocking when viewed by Parisians in the 19th century—as well as the added attraction of a compelling story to tell.
Cultural historian, Professor Charles Dellheim of Boston University, agrees. “The emotional intensity of the color in Van Gogh’s paintings gives a frisson the viewer can get almost nowhere else.” He also likens the phenomenon to the musical Hamilton having popularized an obscure slice of American history: “Turning high culture into a kind of rave with these immersive shows makes it accessible in a way most museums do not.”
Such is the success of Van Gogh Alive that many of its immersive experiences are now receiving permanent homes. The first of these is to be housed in THE LUME, an exhibition space occupying the top floor of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.
“It’s really changed the landscape of our museum; since opening in July, we’ve more than doubled our visitor numbers and attracted a new, younger audience,” says the museum’s deputy director of marketing Jonathan Berger.
Berger considers the exhibition’s projections to be a new art form in themselves—“painting with light.” And, he says, seeing Van Gogh’s brush stokes larger than life helps people appreciate the artist’s original works more. “Since the show opened, I’ve seen more people gathered around his Sheaves of Wheat on display here than ever before.” Van Gogh will be the museum’s main attraction for the next five years.
These immersive shows make high culture accessible in a way most museums do not—Professor Charles Dellheim
Impressive permanent sites for immersive experiences have also been created in France by Culturespaces, who, last spring, opened the Atelier des Lumières warehouse in Paris with a Van Gogh experience of their own. The company has since followed on with Bassins de Lumières—“monumental immersive digital exhibitions devoted to major artists in the history of art and contemporary art”—on the site of a former submarine base in Bordeaux.
Meanwhile, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, which uniquely features a virtual-reality journey through the Provençal landscape, is currently playing in London, New York, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, and Los Angeles and will open soon in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Boston, and Seattle.
But what do the experts think about the ways in which these immersive shows manipulate Van Gogh’s work? The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is resoundingly positive: “We look at these initiatives as worthwhile additions. It’s nice to see how the artist’s works still inspire makers and creatives,” says a spokesman, noting that the museum has created its own Meet Vincent Van Gogh experience, which has just opened in Madrid.
However, the museum adds that it sees immersive experiences as “a stepping stone… because we believe there is nothing more powerful than getting in touch with real works of art.”
Banner image: An immersive display of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in Van Gogh Alive