As Beyond Van Gogh heads to Surrey, historian Fanny Curtat suggests the art world is changing

Reflecting on the appeal of Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, Fanny Curtat offers an observation that, while unexpected, somehow makes perfect sense. As much as it’s the giant 3-D projections of The Starry Night and Café Terrace at Night  that has drawn millions of viewers around the world, it’s the way people interact with the travelling exhibit that the Quebec-based art historian loves.

“Beyond Van Gogh was created during COVID, so for the longest time we only worked remotely and I only saw it on my 13-inch computer screen,” she says, on the line from home in snowy Montreal. “When I finally got to see it in person it was in Austin, Texas, the first image that struck me was that there were all these kids running around. That showed that the exhibit, and the space, was really alive and purposeful. That became really meaningful—I had theoretically understood the appeal of the experience and what it could be. But to experience it myself, in this context of a project I’d worked on, was so, so moving.

“What was interesting was everyone’s different reaction to it,” she continues. “My experience was the creation. And then I’m there and I’m seeing adults twirling, people crying, some seated and very contemplative, kids active and going all over the place. That made it all seem alive and magical.”

And most magical of all, she stresses, are the kids who show up with their parents.

There are unspoken rules at traditional museums, and of them is that all children usually need to be kept quiet and on a leash, whether real or figurative. Not so at Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, which starts a run in Surrey this February. Think of it as a democratization of art where everyone is welcome—all they have to do is load into the minivan.

“That’s why I like to bring up the kids running around,” Curtat says. “It really is the first image that struck me.”

The past couple of years have seen a boom in large-scale multi-media exhibits, where iconic works are rendered large-scale through the magic of digital projections in spaces outside of the museum circuit. Presented by Paquin Entertainment Group, Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience features 300 works of the Dutch master, projected onto a variety of surfaces, sometimes melting into each other, most of them larger than life.

Spanning multiple rooms, the show spotlights both famous and minor works, features extensive biographical into, and sets out to help viewers understand Van Gogh’s creative processes.

Thanks to her background in art history, Curtat was brought on board to help contextualise the Dutch artist’s life, that starting with the exhibit’s Introduction Hall which was designed to re-frame someone who’s often been wildly misunderstood.

For reasons that only start with the absinthe and the ear, Van Gogh is thought of today as an artist who was beyond tortured. Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience paints a more forgiving picture.

“I knew about him from the get-go before getting involved, but I would say that it was more on a theoretical level,” Curtat says. “I knew how he fits into the grand scheme of things of art history, and of course I knew about the letters to his brother Theo. But this really gave me the chance to take some time and read the letters.”

As she dove into that correspondence, which spanned an 18-year period, her perception of Van Gogh began to change.

“I started understanding why every art historian ends up teary-eyed when they talk about Van Gogh, or do a conference on him,” she says. “We are so lucky to have all this information that offers so much insight into his mind and soul. His work is so very powerful, and we already know about the drama in his life, and the figure of a martyr that he became. But through the letters we see so much more complexity. He’s so far from just this madman who mutilates himself. He’s also a creative genius who is very lucid and clear about what’s going on with him.

“He’s very smart,” Curtat continues. “He speaks four languages, he’s very articulate and interested in theory. Sometimes he has this childlike wonder, and sometimes a very philosophical depth. Through the connection with his brother, you understand what’s really powerful about his work. There’s a timeless aspect to Van Gogh which is why he speaks to so many people.”

The high irony of that is that, during his life, connecting with others was difficult for the artist. That, Curtat suggests, makes him perfect for a world where the reason half of us are on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is we’re looking for validation from our fellow human beings who we mostly don’t even know in real life.

“You clearly see how bad he was at communicating with most people, but how much he wanted to—he craved purpose,” Curtat notes. “He started painting because he had exhausted all his other options: he tried to be a preacher, he tried to be an art dealer and all of these other things that failed. Art became his ultimate outlet. When you think about this base level of emotion, perception, and connectivity as he fought his own demons, all of these things become incredibly relatable and incredibly rich. There’s an innocence and a candour to Van Gogh, and that allows you to look at yourself with a sense of humility. That’s why being able to work on this project was such a touching experience for me.”

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is part of an interesting shift in the way that we continue to view, and process art. Up until relatively recently—and certainly pre-Internet—museums were the Meccas where, after saving up for a trip, we went to marvel at the works of giants like Davinci, Picasso, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. And because works by such masters are mostly found in the museums of Europe and meccas like New York, those with the financial means to travel got to see them first-hand, the rest of the world had to be satisfied with books, reproduction garage-sale paintings, and the occasional North American exhibit.

That crowds have shown up in the literal millions across the world to digital exhibits has led to no shortage of discussion and debate.

“There’s a question as to where art is going, in terms of museology and also in terms of practices,” Curtat offers. “The questions are ones that we don’t have answers to yet. We don’t know what these kind of experiences will do in the way that we appreciate art. The same could be said about social media and Instagram. These questions are ones that the art world needs to ponder, and, of, course, we wouldn’t expect anything else from the art world than for there to be a mixed bag of very contrasting views. There needs to be a debate constantly, or, really, it wouldn’t be the art world.”

As proud as she is of her work on Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, Curtat stresses that nothing will ever match the power of seeing The Starry Night in person at MoMA. Or capping a sun-drenched day in Paris with an in-person viewing of Van Gogh Self-Portrait at the Musée d’Orsay.

“An experience like this will never replace a museum—there is something incredible about the aura of an artwork and experience that is in a special space,” Curtat argues.

Still, she’d like to think that Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, and exhibits like it, can be an important first step to opening new horizons­—and not just for the kids that she loves to watch tearing around shows.

“At this point, it’s about seeing how new tools and technology can be applied to art and art history at large,” Curtat says. “How can they connect different kinds of audiences? We can’t deny that, for a lot of people, museums are intimidating—they can sometimes feel like they don’t have enough tools to understand art. That’s sad because that is not something that art requires—all you need is will. So a project like this is about building a bridge with some very contemporary tools. Connecting the past to a new, different kind of audience.

“My wish,” she continues, “is that someone who might by intimidated by a museum might go through an experience like this and have a connection with, in this case, Van Gogh and then be curious about experiencing the real thing. Maybe they’ll find themselves in New York and really want to see the original The Starry Night, which has its own magic and aura. We need to think about these kind or ramifications. These experiences are pretty much here to stay, and will continue to evolve as much as technology does. It’s now a question of where they can lead us.”

Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience will be at the Agriplex at Cloverdale Fairgrounds from February 1 to March 5. 


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