Wednesday, August 4

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 time Over the Rhône,” “Bed room in Arles,” “The Church at Auvers,” various his self-portraits) set in opposition to a brazen sapphire background quite than the same old chaste white museum partitions.

I’ve had a poster of “Starry Night time,” gifted to me by a university buddy, since my undergraduate dorm days. It hangs framed in my bed room at the moment. 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 — abruptly, 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 might an artist’s work be reimagined to provide an viewers in trendy occasions an much more intimate modern relationship with the artwork?

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.

However first there was a phenomenal translation of van Gogh: The entry ceiling of Pier 36, an imaginative 3-D recreation of “Starry Night time” by the designer David Korins, that includes hundreds of painted brushes, felt like a phenomenal homage — an artist taking over one other artist in a piece that invitations a brand new perspective, channeling the unique work’s type and motifs with out aiming to be a precise replica.

And but that simply was an appetizer to the primary present, a collection of linked rooms the place folks 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 bought to me wasn’t the younger girls posing for selfies or the older vacationers lounging as if at a seashore or the stressed youngsters scurrying round and climbing on Korins’s giant 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 great thing about being swallowed by projections of van Gogh’s multicolored fields was subdued by the sloppiness of the interpretation. I stood off to 1 aspect to look at the projections and misplaced the resolute brush strokes and tiny gradients of shade within the fuzziness of the digitization.

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

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? Regardless of all the colour and character in his work, it could be inaccurate to restyle his work as surroundings on the quasi-stages that these exhibitions create for audiences to discover not as admirers however lively contributors.

Irrespective of what number of occasions I toured the chambers, I had the itching sense that it was dishonest to broaden a 2 ½ by 3 foot portray to suit the horizons of a 75,000-square-foot house. The photographs are expanded and duplicated to create a repetitive panoramic. However there’s a motive for the dimensions of the unique work; what the painter needed to obscure, what components 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, “Right here’s a bit of a world of shade, type and type that I’ve given you.”

To attempt to introduce new depth and interactivity within the artist’s work is to suggest 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.

The van Gogh present at Vesey equally used projections together with 3-D deconstructions of his work, and I felt extra relaxed with these spectacular life-size recreations of works like “Bed room in Arles” in an exhibition that styled itself a “digital museum.” However my eyes glossed over the canvas reproductions of the work, so inferior to the actual factor: The colours have been uninteresting, the textures nonexistent, and the fibers of the canvas shone artificially within the exhibit gentle.

Not the van Gogh works I keep in mind however a minimum of 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.

Nonetheless, I discovered the ultimate a part of the exhibition — a journey through digital actuality headset by means of a few of the landscapes on which his work have been primarily based — off-putting. On this digital world I floated by means of van Gogh’s home, then out into the road amongst folks milling round, working and chatting. Each every so often a body would seem in entrance of my sight view, and the scene would remodel, to match its painted counterpart. We’re meant to see the distinction between the actual world and van Gogh’s world as seen by a mind-reading illustrator. However can any scenic designer actually step into the artist’s sneakers? Are some chambers within the impenetrable thoughts of an artist higher left untouched?

In fact there’s no approach to resurrect the artist, not by means of the Vesey van Gogh recreation of his world, nor the Pier 36 exhibition (which additionally gives 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 quest of the actual 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 bunch of keen artwork college students in cutoff denims and Doc Martens gushed about what they’d discovered from “Wheat Discipline With Cypresses” whereas I studied the portray’s sea-green bush leaning to the left as if eavesdropping on a dialog exterior of the body.

As I hung out with “Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat,” I heard somebody behind me say, “What a tragic little man.” And naturally they have 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 yr and a half of pandemic: his lifetime of hardship, together with isolation and melancholy. 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 fantastic thing about the work but additionally as a result of I associated to his insecurity and self-doubt, his wrestle with psychological sickness. The parable of the tortured artist is so seductive, I clung to it for expensive life.

However 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 faux to know the best way he thought and noticed the world. I solely know what I’ve learn, and that’s not sufficient to understand the whole thing of a life. What I do know is the best way his works faucet one thing stunning and unfathomable in me — the critic, the art-lover, the poet. As a result of on the finish of the day, we are able to’t faux to know van Gogh, identical to we are able to’t faux his work could be projected on partitions as if it’s the identical expertise. All we’ve are the work within the frames, however these nights, these cypresses, these sunflowers — they’re greater than sufficient on their very own.



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