Paintings, Projections, V.R. Starry Nights: Can We Ever Know van Gogh?

In 2017, I took a visit to Paris, the place I greedily took in as a lot artwork as I might. In one of many cavernous chambers of the ornate Musée d’Orsay was the van Gogh exhibition, his framed works (“Starry Night Over the Rhône,” “Bedroom in Arles,” “The Church at Auvers,” quite a few his self-portraits) set towards a brazen sapphire background slightly than the standard chaste white museum partitions.

I’ve had a poster of “Starry Night,” gifted to me by a school buddy, since my undergraduate dorm days. It hangs framed in my bed room in the present day. At Musée d’Orsay I stared at his stressed skies and fields, stood for lengthy stretches in entrance of his self-portraits, rooted in place by the depth of his gaze. And I cried — all of a sudden, violently. I rushed out. I had by no means earlier than had such a fierce response to a portray, and I’ve by no means once more since.

What does it imply to construct intimacy with an artist — even one separated by over a century of historical past? And can an artist’s work be reimagined to provide an viewers in fashionable occasions an much more intimate up to date relationship with the artwork?

At “Immersive Van Gogh” at  Pier 36, an animated replica of  “Japonasieri: Oiran (Courtesan)” 1887. Credit…Sam Youkilis for The New York Times

These questions occurred to me as I visited the 2 competing immersive van Gogh exhibitions in Manhattan, “Immersive Van Gogh” at Pier 36 on the East River and “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” at Skylight on Vesey. Unlike my emotional excessive at Musée d’Orsay, these reveals left me feeling largely detached; in truth, the strongest response I had was an alarming sense of intrusion and a disingenuous reference to the artist and his work.

Immersive artwork installations — and particularly immersive theater — set off my sense of play and activate each the critic and artist in me. There’s a big distinction between artwork conceived to be immersive, although, and artwork strong-armed into an immersive medium.

But first there was a stupendous translation of van Gogh: The entry ceiling of Pier 36, an imaginative Three-D recreation of “Starry Night” by the designer David Korins, that includes 1000’s of painted brushes, felt like a stupendous homage — an artist taking over one other artist in a piece that invitations a brand new perspective, channeling the unique work’s fashion and motifs with out aiming to be an actual replica.

The foyer at Pier 36, the place the ceiling is a Three-D recreation of “Starry Night” by the designer David Korins. At left, “Blue Self-Portait,” from 1889.  The portray is now on the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.Credit…Drew Dockser

And but that simply was an appetizer to the principle present, a sequence of linked rooms the place individuals lie and sit and stand watching a video of van Gogh’s works projected in all corners of the room, and that left me numb. And what obtained to me wasn’t the younger girls posing for selfies or the older vacationers lounging as if at a seaside or the stressed kids scurrying round and climbing on Korins’s massive summary monuments, their reflective surfaces catching all of the sunflowers and stars — I’ve encountered a lot of the identical in conventional museum exhibitions of van Gogh’s work.

It was the brevity of the work within the video sequence — how rapidly they appeared and disappeared. And it was the animations — his mighty cypresses manifesting like apparitions from the mist in order that the magic of the work is rendered actually. There’s no room for subtlety or implication right here. The fantastic thing about being swallowed by projections of van Gogh’s multicolored fields was subdued by the sloppiness of the interpretation. I stood off to at least one facet to look at the projections and misplaced the resolute brush strokes and tiny gradients of coloration within the fuzziness of the digitization.

I rapidly realized that for a very good variety of these within the viewers, these particulars didn’t matter. The purpose was to make use of the artwork as a backdrop for a form of theatrical expertise.

At Pier 36, a replica of “The Yellow House,” 1888. Arles, France. Credit…Sam Youkilis for The New York Times

It was exactly this expertise that made me uneasy. How do you make theater out of artwork that’s so explicitly contained and particular person to van Gogh’s perspective? Despite all the colour and character in his work, it might be inaccurate to restyle his work as surroundings on the quasi-stages that these exhibitions create for audiences to discover not as admirers however energetic members.

No matter what number of occasions I toured the chambers, I had the itching sense that it was dishonest to broaden a 2 ½ by Three foot portray to suit the horizons of a 75,000-foot house. The photos are expanded and duplicated to create a repetitive panoramic. But there’s a cause for the scale of the unique work; what the painter needed to obscure, what elements of the world we’re allowed to see and what we’re left to think about. A portray hanging on a museum wall is a declarative assertion, the artist saying, “Here’s a piece of a world of color, style and form that I’ve given you.”

To attempt to introduce new depth and interactivity within the artist’s work is to indicate that van Gogh’s originals — his brush strokes, his swaying fields and torrents of blues or the bowing heads of his oleanders — didn’t breathe.

A life-size recreation of “Bedroom in Arles” on the van Gogh present at Skylight on Vesey.Credit…Sam Youkilis for The New York Times

The van Gogh present at Vesey equally used projections together with Three-D deconstructions of his work, and I felt extra relaxed with these spectacular life-size recreations of works like “Bedroom in Arles” in an exhibition that styled itself a “virtual museum.” But my eyes glossed over the canvas reproductions of the work, so inferior to the true factor: The colours had been uninteresting, the textures nonexistent, and the fibers of the canvas shone artificially within the exhibit mild.

Not the van Gogh works I bear in mind however at the least right here was the artwork, standing nonetheless and by itself, and with out interruption. And right here was the artist — a timeline of his life, blurbs about his profession.

However, I discovered the ultimate a part of the exhibition — a journey by way of digital actuality headset by among the landscapes on which his work had been based mostly — off-putting. In this digital world I floated by van Gogh’s home, then out into the road amongst individuals milling round, working and chatting. Every on occasion a body would seem in entrance of my field of regard, and the scene would rework, to match its painted counterpart. We’re meant to see the distinction between the true world and van Gogh’s world as seen by a mind-reading illustrator. But can any scenic designer actually step into the artist’s sneakers? Are some chambers within the impenetrable thoughts of an artist higher left untouched?

Patrons on the Vesey exhibition use digital actuality headsets for a  journey by among the landscapes on which van Gogh’s work had been based mostly.Credit…Sam Youkilis for The New York Times

Of course there’s no option to resurrect the artist, not by the Vesey van Gogh recreation of his world, nor the Pier 36 exhibition (which additionally presents an A.I. van Gogh who will write you a letter; an algorithm recycles phrases and phrases from his real-life letters and delivers them in his personal handwriting).

In search of the true van Gogh, I made my first post-pandemic museum outing to the Met. I spent a number of minutes mesmerized by the wild, nearly sensual, twists and curls of the darkish leaves in “Cypresses,” in distinction to the powdery blues and kooky pinks pirouetting within the sky. A gaggle of keen artwork college students in cutoff denims and Doc Martens gushed about what they’d discovered from “Wheat Field With Cypresses” whereas I studied the portray’s sea-green bush leaning to the left as if eavesdropping on a dialog outdoors of the body.

A customer research van Gogh’s portray “Wheat Field With Cypresses” on the Metropolitan Museum.Credit…Anna-Marie Kellen, by way of The Met

As I frolicked with “Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat,” I heard somebody behind me say, “What a sad little man.” And in fact they had been proper. The portray’s fleshy pinks and reds give it a extra bodily emphasis than his signature cool blue remark of the pure world. The identical sunny yellows and fern greens that look unassuming in his coat and hat make his face look sickly and jaundiced.

What a tragic little man — sure, van Gogh’s private story is a big a part of what we relate to, and particularly as we come out of a 12 months and a half of pandemic: his lifetime of hardship, together with isolation and despair. And, in his case, there was additionally poverty and in the end suicide. The van Gogh I met in Paris made me cry, not solely due to the great thing about the work but in addition as a result of I associated to his insecurity and self-doubt, his battle with psychological sickness. The fantasy of the tortured artist is so seductive, I clung to it for expensive life.

But what the 2 van Gogh immersive exhibitions made me notice is how I additionally made unfounded presumptions of the artist and his work in 2017. I can by no means fake to grasp the way in which he thought and noticed the world. I solely know what I’ve learn, and that’s not sufficient to understand everything of a life. What I do know is the way in which his works faucet one thing stunning and unfathomable in me — the critic, the art-lover, the poet. Because on the finish of the day, we are able to’t fake to know van Gogh, identical to we are able to’t fake his work may be projected on partitions as if it’s the identical expertise. All now we have are the work within the frames, however these nights, these cypresses, these sunflowers — they’re greater than sufficient on their very own.