Given that millions of people around the globe have experienced the exhibit “VAN GOGH: The Immersive Experience” since it began touring in 2017, I have not much to add that has not already been said. Except to share a few photos and a video of this remarkable tour de force and to encourage you to go see it before the Exhibition Hub exhibit leaves Cincinnati this summer from its location at 18 West 4th St. (The show continues around the planet in other locales.)
I’d also like to muse on a few things after exiting this show, glad that I plunked down the $35 to see it. (Also available: $20 tickets for children, and family and VIP packages). I was equally happy I spent an extra $5 to don virtual reality goggles, to be transfixed by a roving angel’s eye view of Provence, France. That seat-spinning tour dunks you into the sights and sounds, the glowing colors and scenes in and about Arles, which so transfixed this so-tortured, so-gifted soul. (I note that I needed far more time to googly-eye the massive windmill and other scenery in Virtual Provence.)
I am ill-educated in art, so going in I possessed only those few scraps of intel about van Gogh that surface in the background noise about him in world culture: “The Starry Night” … The lopping of part of his ear … His tragically young death at age 37 … How he sold but one painting in his day … This post will not be my gloss on van Gogh’s life and work (consult this Britannica piece for that), except to note a few things. While “VAN GOGH: The Immersive Experience” wows you with its flash, such as a 7,000-square-foot Immersive Gallery animating his work and that must-experience fly-through of Arles, I came away just as intrigued and moved by the more intimate details.
The initial entrance into the exhibit is an informative encounter down a darkened corridor with his growing artistry and major works. None of these are originals, by the way, as van Gogh paintings are now among the most valuable artwork on Earth. The knowledge of how little valued his art was in in his time — and how, constantly wrestling with penury, he sold only one work while alive — is so remarkable given that one infographic values the half-dozen handful of van Goghs in private collections around the world at more than $500 million.
One thing I came away with — besides a greater appreciation for the artist’s almost hallucinogenic parlaying of color and scene, plus his self-awareness and social consciousness — is how painfully he boomeranged between painting great art and being immobilized by his descents into psychosis and his hospitalizations. And then, days or weeks later, being, as the exhibit notes several times, ‘lucid‘ once again and eager to take up his brush, once more. So often, notes the Britannica profile, he was “haunted by recurrent attacks, alternating between moods of calm and despair.”
I suppose that somewhere I vaguely knew the psychiatric backdrop of “The Starry Night,” and how the iconic painting derived partially from the view outside his lunatic asylum window. But below are the greater details from this gloss on the making of one of the most recognizable and popular images in Western art:
CLICK TO VIEW VIDEO: A sampler of “VAN GOGH: The Immersive Experience”
Painted in June 1889, [“The Starry Night”] depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room … just before sunrise, with the addition of an imaginary village … In the aftermath of the 23 December 1888 breakdown that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear, van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum on 8 May 1889 … [which] catered to the wealthy and was less than half full when van Gogh arrived, allowing him to occupy not only a second-story bedroom but also a ground-floor room for use as a painting studio. … During the year Van Gogh stayed at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the prolific output of paintings he had begun in Arles continued … He produced some of the best-known works of his career, including the Irises from May 1889 … and the blue self-portrait from September, 1889.
Like many an inattentive student of art history, I presume to know that van Gogh simply cut off his ear in a fit of artistic madness. The incident took place around Christmas in 1888 during a mental breakdown, at a time when he was living with the artist Paul Gauguin in Arles. Things started well, but soon deteriorated between them “because they had opposing ideas and were temperamentally incompatible,” notes the Britannica profile. “Physically and emotionally exhausted, van Gogh snapped under the strain. He argued with Gauguin and, reportedly, chased him with a razor and cut off the lower half of his own left ear.”
The exhibit does not reference the work of the 21st-century art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, cited by Britannica, who studied police records and concluded “it was actually Gauguin who mutilated van Gogh’s ear and that he did so with a sword. Whatever transpired, van Gogh took responsibility and was hospitalized.”
The Britannica profile goes on to note how keenly van Gogh thought about what he was doing, when his mind did not turn upon him:
Van Gogh’s style was spontaneous and instinctive, for he worked with great speed and intensity, determined to capture an effect or a mood while it possessed him. “When anyone says that such and such [painting] is done too quickly,” he told his brother, “you can reply that they have looked at it too fast.”
You might say that van Gogh was one of the earliest proponents of the ‘selfie,’ although his were captured with oil paint and canvas. | TheStoryIsTheThing.Substack.com photos
It is perturbing to spend so much time, vividly up close and personal, with Van Gogh’s work and life in this exhibit and then to hit the specific details of his death in 1890 at age 37. He shot himself in late July of that year, aiming for his heart, but piercing his abdomen with the bullet. He was an impoverished, little-known artist, a lifelong veteran of wrestling with his sanity, deciding he had had enough. The Britannica profile author puts it this way:
In despair of ever being able to overcome his loneliness or be cured, van Gogh shot himself. He did not die immediately. When found wounded in his bed, he allegedly said, “I shot myself … I only hope I haven’t botched it.” That evening, when interrogated by the police, van Gogh refused to answer questions, saying, “What I have done is nobody else’s business. I am free to do what I like with my own body.” Van Gogh died two days later. [Brother] Theo, his own health broken, died six months later (January 25, 1891). In 1914 Theo’s remains were moved to his brother’s grave site, in a little cemetery in Auvers, where today the two brothers lie side by side with identical tombstones.
I exited onto the Cincinnati streets after the exhibit moved by how much van Gogh’s mind aggrieved and tortured him. Hoping, too, that his ecstasy of creation and artistic witness to the world was, at times, some kind of soothing, peaceable counterbalance to all that suffering. You wonder, too, what he might think of his global fame today as one of the planet’s most recognizable, beloved, and expensive of artists.
I suppose the ‘torture’ in the ‘tortured artist’ syllogism could be said to have yielded some of the greatest fruits of Vincent van Gogh’s abbreviated artistic life. But if there is any truth to incarnation, I’d like to imagine him in some subsequent life, in happier circumstances than the too-often tumultuous timeline of his life. Paintbrush or some other artistic tool in hand. Musing on what he is seeing, a vase of golden sunflowers lit by the yellow hues that he so adored.
Touching brush to canvas.
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