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Van Gogh’s Immersive Experience

Currently, traveling the world is the Van Gogh Immersive Experience in a virtual reality setting that was been an extreme hit and has brought thousands, young and old to view Van Gogh’s works exclusively. Now people instantly know the Sunflowers, Starry Night to be Vincent Van Gogh’s. These interactive events are traveling city to city, typically set up in large gallery spaces. Images or videos of the artist's works are projected onto walls, ceilings, and floors, sometimes accompanied by animations, narrations, music, or fragrances.

I first experienced this in the South of France at Carrieres de Lumieres in 2012, when a cavernous quarry of white limestone was turned into a major media museum with a hundred projectors to lite up the darkness in Les Baux de Provence. The show was Gauguin, Van Gogh: Painters in Color. Another I saw there a few years later was Michelangelo. A new way to experience art, each a rousing success. Now there is Les Bassins des Lumieres at Bordeaux’s submarine base built by the Germans after occupying France in 1940. This was another very interesting project, as the strongly reinforced submarine “colossal bunker-like” garage used 60,000 cubic meters of concrete. It was too costly to destroy, so the eleven submarine pens were entrusted to Culturespaces to become an amazing largest digital art center in the world. It is an unforgettable immersive experience as the images are also reflected off the water of the four submarine pens which you walk around. There I saw the Impressionists including some of Vincent’s works.

When Van Gogh came south to Arles from Paris he was highly productive perhaps the dynamism of the city, the Provencal sunshine, his mingling with other avant-garde artists and exposure to new techniques had been a direct influence on his work. It was here that he painted outside in Arles in 1888 and his use of color got brighter and bolder. Yellow was one of Vincent’s favorite colors during this time so sunflowers were the perfect subjects of his painting. Evenings spent in the Café de la Forum imprinted color even in low light. He also befriended local folks like the mailman and did portraits.

I went to Arles last year and wondered the narrow streets walking in Vincent’s footsteps from the Amphitheatre built in 90 AD, hillside green space to the newest monument -- Frank Gehry’s glittering crumpled metal tower a center piece of a new cultural center LUMA. The city is forever changed by the brilliance of Maja Hoffman and Frank Gehry. The tower hits you in the face and is exceptional from every angle, it makes you want to walk around the 23 acre campus to see how it evolves in its landscapes. The facets of the crumpled metal catch the changing light: this is a tribute, Gehry has said, to Arles’s local artist Vincent van Gogh and to his evocations of light. But it is the thought provoking “ingredients” inside that make you marvel; a sea salt wall made from the nearby salt pans of the Camargue, to the cafe where the walls are covered with panels of sunflower pulp and a 30 foot tapestry is woven and dyed with local natural vegetation. Thoughtful minds were put to use to create with rice straw, olive pits, algae and suchlike made into prototype materials for buildings and furniture. Of course, you cannot miss going to the top of the tower, where a panorama spreads before you of Arles and its Roman amphitheater, the broad river Rhone and distant horizons of plains and mountains.

Not everyone has the chance to visit Van Gogh’s Museum in Amsterdam dedicated to over 1000 of his paintings. But this Dutch born Post-Impressionist painter who subsequently became one of the most famous and influential figures in the art world. It is said that in a decade, he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, many date from the last two years of his life. We all know sadly that he was never commercially successful, he struggled with severe depression and poverty, eventually leading to his suicide at age thirty-seven.

In the anniversary year of 2023, the Van Gogh Museum and the Musee d’Orsay are curating a major exhibition about the final months of Vincent’s life, which he spent in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise. He had been discharged from the asylum in Saint-Rémy and had made plans to come and live closer to his brother, in or near Paris. Auvers-sur-Oise a picturesque village on the banks of the river Oise is where Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life and painted 78 canvases. One must marvel at the legacy. Somehow, I don’t think that Vincent would comprehend his impact on the world!

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