Posted August 22nd, 2021 by Russ White
On paintings, projections, and our endless fascination with Vincent van Gogh
I’m not sure if The Starry Night was the first Van Gogh I ever saw in real life, but I do know it made an impression. I was twenty years old, visiting MoMA in the summer of 2002, and boom, there it was: the image I’d seen on posters and mousepads and coffee mugs and totebags my entire life. It looms large in our visual culture, and there, in person, I was struck: it seemed so small. I got closer, amazed that I could walk right up to this artistic icon, this inescapable jpeg, and look at the actual object. Up close, to my surprise, in between the swirling daubs of paint, the tight brown weave of bare canvas was peeking through. He hadn't even used gesso; just quick, thick strokes of paint applied right onto this old, rough fabric.
These are the details I remember, the ones that never translated in reproduction. Through its physicality, the painting connects you directly to the artist’s hand, across the distance of a century and a continent. The image’s power has made it endure in our imaginations — as towering and declarative as Hokusai’s Great Wave, as moody and memorable as Munch’s Scream. But in person, if you have that privilege, you get to know this little painting’s fragility as well, and experience its peculiar presence.
Still, I wonder what the experience of that painting would have been like going in cold, not having already internalized the composition through sheer repetition — the dark cypress against that thick celestial churn repeated endlessly throughout our cultural landscape. It’s like when I finally listened to the Beatles for the first time, at some point in college, and instantly recognized “Getting Better” as the jingle from that Panasonic commercial. Untethered from selling flat-screen TVs, the song’s edge came back, unblunted from that abuse (or perhaps resharpened by it), in the backup falsetto that had been conveniently left out of the advertisement: “It can’t get no worse.”
Like so many "masterpieces" of art history, The Starry Night’s undeniable beauty has become confused over time with a certain inevitability, as if to say, “Of course this image changed the world.” The truth is, what you are looking at is the view through his cell window, during his time at a mental asylum. He was an unpopular pauper, a man who drank too much and was given to wild fits and angry outbursts. After living and painting for two years in Arles, a small French village, the townsfolk had petitioned to have him committed, for the purpose of public safety. He stayed there a year, moved to a new village upon his release, and died two months later. Truly, the only reason we remember the man’s name is through the efforts of his widowed sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who inherited a house full of paintings after both Vincent and her husband Theo — Vincent’s younger brother and biggest supporter — died in quick succession. She proceeded to mount posthumous exhibitions, publish his letters, and cement Vincent’s place in Western art history over the next several decades. Now he is inescapable, especially in recent months, as ads for the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit here in Minneapolis have been hounding us all on social media.
It’s hard to say exactly what puts this man’s paintings head and shoulders above his contemporaries — Cézanne, Gauguin, and Seurat among them — at least in the public’s imagination, but the combination of his skill and his torment has left us intoxicated. We want to bathe in his sunlight just as much as we want to glimpse under the bandage over his severed ear. We can’t seem to get enough. Firstly, there’s this Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, recently opened in a refurbished warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis, which is one of at least twenty locations in cities across North America, according to their website. But there's more: they are not alone, sure to be confused with several other projection “experiences” — Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, Van Gogh Alive, and Beyond Van Gogh, according to the New York Times. We are, at present, immersed in immersions.
Self Portrait, oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm, 1889. Possibly his last self-portrait, one of over 30 he created. In the collection of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
Nor is there a shortage of books and articles and feature length films about the man — most recently the oil-painted rotoscope of Loving Vincent, from 2017, and Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate with Willem Dafoe, from 2018. The former, when viewed in a theater, would have given these immersive experiences a run for their money. Each frame of the film has been meticulously rendered in Van Gogh’s palette and brushstrokes, at times recreating signature works as it tells the story of Vincent’s final days in Auvers, after he left the asylum. It’s a hand-painted whodunnit, indulging in the theory that the artist’s awkward suicide (shot in the gut and dying 30 hours later) was actually a murder, and that poor Vincent was merely covering for the teenaged moron who shot him, a local bully who liked to play cowboy and may have accidentally popped the artist with his peashooter. It’s a compelling but unsubstantiated theory that has been popularized by the two authors of a nearly 1000-page biography of the man, including it only as a note in the appendix. Loving Vincent shrugs its way through this detective story, akin to Citizen Kane in its search for the truth behind a great man’s death. It’s cool to watch but doesn’t leave you with much to chew on besides visual marvel.
For Schnabel (an artist himself), Van Gogh’s story is more of a chance to ruminate on what it means to paint — and to have to paint. Dafoe’s Van Gogh works constantly, rushing to set up his easel as soon as something catches his eye: a model, a still life, a sunrise. Aside from his room at the Yellow House in Arles and his studio at the asylum, much of the film takes place outside, as we follow the artist clambering through fields and over foothills with his painting kit to catch the sun’s light on the landscape. It’s easy to forget, viewing all of his works inside museums or galleries or projection installations: the outdoors were integral to his process and product. “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature,” he wrote to his brother in 1874, “for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.” The film is also a helpful reminder that this man revolutionized modern painting with a bunch of landscapes and portraits of townsfolk. Simple moments caught in grand gestures. Village nobodies made immortal. Still lives of his busted old shoes.
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate, 2018. As photographed on my TV.
The common thread is that we all seem to use poor Vincent as our own canvas. In some tellings, he is the quintessential starving artist; in others, a volatile genius; or perhaps a kind-hearted but troubled everyman. (Hell, we can’t even agree on how to correctly pronounce his name.) His story wraps you up in threads of tragedy and happenstance right from the very start. He was born a year to the day after his stillborn older brother and was given the exact same name, as though he were a replacement for the lost child, forever to be a reminder of grief to his distant mother. As Jean Leymarie puts it in Who Was Van Gogh?, an illustrated biography published in 1968:
His dead brother’s grave stood right at the entrance of the churchyard at Zundert, near the little church where the pastor, his father, read the service; so that Vincent, as soon as he could read, had the odd experience of seeing his own name on a tombstone. (p. 11)
The young man would go on to fail at following his father’s footsteps into the ministry, fail even at working as a missionary, and fail at courting a wife and having a family, until finally, in 1881, at the age of 27 and with the financial aide of Theo, he took up drawing and painting, resolved to make a successful life and career of it. Just nine years later he would be dead, leaving behind an astounding 900 paintings and over 1000 drawings.
The filmmakers, not surprisingly, project themselves onto his biography, looking for depth in the darkness. The Immersive animators, in their turn, project his works onto their own wall, and also not surprisingly, the results are mostly flat. Our familiarity with these paintings has bred in us a sense of ownership over the man’s work and memory — in film, in scholarship, in spectacle, and, of course nowadays, in the comments section. Alicia Eler’s delightfully scathing review in the Star Tribune has garnered a whopping 92 comments so far — an avalanche by local art criticism standards — mostly from folks either vehemently agreeing or disagreeing with Eler’s assessment of the show as “a tragic combination of a bad rave and a haunted house,” and a “sad excuse for art.”
It’s an easy target, Immersive Van Gogh, a silly spectacle about serious art, divorced almost entirely from the kind of experience you can have with an actual painting. The narratives of art history or the biopic have been replaced with something far gauzier: a 35 minute video transporting you visually through an animated montage of decontextualized images. Past the lobby and its oversized prop versions of the painter’s kit, you enter a big room, empty save for benches and mirrored monoliths, and the walls come alive with moving tendrils of pixelated paint. It’s mesmerizing and discombobulating, at the same time overwhelming and underwhelming as you look around to get your bearings and make sure you’re not missing any details. It’s alright, you soon realize: they’re repeating like a wallpaper, or, you might say, a screensaver.
Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, installation view in the front room.
Further in, there’s another room, twice the size in length and height, but curiously playing the same animation, this time onto the floor as well. You’ll recognize the bed, the chairs, the sunflowers, and the postman with the giant beard, each dissolving from one to the next. The whole thing has the frenetic buzz of a benign acid trip. Giant globs of oil paint whizz by — illustrating his thick, impasto technique — and you do get a sense, in spots, of the physicality of Van Gogh’s surfaces. There are even a few passages that really work. In one vertiginous sequence, brown squiggly roots drag you upward into thick wafting blades of grass (the effect is more intense in the smaller room, I found). And there is a certain poetry, if you let yourself see it, to the Starry Night section. In my notes, right above the line “Starry Night passage is lovely,” I find another reminder I wrote to myself: “Don’t be a snob.” And that’s maybe the key to this whole affair: for some, even several artists I know, the experience was dazzling; for others, the immersion was only ever ankle deep. Buy the ticket, take the ride, as the saying goes. But there’s the rub: tickets range from forty to one hundred dollars (for the full VIP treatment), plus parking.
And then, of course, you exit through the gift shop. I didn’t see any mousepads this time, but there were Van Gogh teddy bears and Van Gogh coffee mugs and Van Gogh keychains, and so much more. It’s the bric-a-brac of a boondoggle, and it’s hard not to view the whole enterprise in that light, in spite of their promises to begin an artist-in-residence program in the lobby or hire local muralists to paint their façade. This venture is not here to build or serve community; it is here to make money.
And that’s fine. If we’re being honest, the same could be said of almost the entire art world. One or two steps beyond the earnest painter working doggedly at their craft, you’ll find an industry built on showmanship and speculation. Smoke and mirrors — at its highest levels in the service of building clout and capital for the moneyed class. It’s no excuse; I’m just saying let’s not kid ourselves.
Amid the fevered opinions about this Immersive exhibit, I’m left wondering what exactly we expect from a spectacle. Sitting with a painting, whether while making it or viewing it, can be a long process. What does it gain, I wondered, to see the thing move? Maybe looking at small old oil paintings at museums simply isn’t for everyone. Certainly they wouldn’t make twenty iterations of a show — duplicated by no fewer than four other companies — if tickets weren’t selling, right? One of the show’s organizers, Svetlana Dvoretsky, vouches for what previous audiences have gotten out of the production. “We’ve seen so many different emotions,” she says. “People laugh, people cry, meditate, propose. We’ve had quite a few engagements in our venues, which is very exciting.”
Maybe the bar has been moved lower as our attention spans have grown shorter, or maybe you can go see this show and go see a real painting, in the same way that you can watch Willem Dafoe as a ghastly, endearing madman one night and the next, watch Kirk Douglas (in 1954’s Lust For Life) play him as a veritable welterweight champion. (I skipped that one myself, not convinced it would be worth the $4 rental.)
Thankfully, as many have pointed out, there is an actual Van Gogh just a few minutes away at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I decided to take their advice this week and go find the painting, running into an artist friend on my way through the museum. He tagged along, and we meandered through the labyrinth of Modern Art galleries on the third floor until, as with Starry Night, there it was: this time a painting I was not at all familiar with — Olive Trees — painted the same year, during his stint at the asylum. It’s a beautiful work, well balanced and thick with his signature strokes, but also rather plain. Pleasant. Not at all revolutionary. My friend and I stood and looked and talked about it. I took a couple photos.
“Do you want to go get a coffee?” he asked after a few minutes.
“Sure,” I replied, “I think I got what I need.” But for some reason, we lingered. And that’s when it came to life, I think for both of us, not as a Van Gogh to check off the to-do list, but as a painting. We started seeing the blues and greens flecked in among the iridescent yellows in the sky, perhaps a technique adopted from Seurat’s pointillism. The same strokes emerged in the vibrant ochre of the ground, hatched with reddish browns and muddy greens. The thick black lines of the tree trunks, at times flashing with hints of indigo, assert the importance of drawing to this painting. They’re bold and expressionistic, almost cartoony, mimicked in the band of gold outlining the sun. Up close, eye to eye with this foreign landscape, I found myself immersed. It was a good moment.
Olive Trees, oil on canvas, 73.6 x 92.7 cm, 1889. At Mia on the third floor in Gallery 355.
We wondered aloud how long it had taken him to paint this piece and how long we, as viewers, owed it our attention. The more we paid it, however, the more we got in return. Standing back, you can see how drastic a departure the picture’s roughness is from the paintings on either side of it, contemporary canvases by Cézanne and Gauguin. Later, looking at the photos I took on my phone, I realized that the shadows of the trees fall at a completely different angle from the sun in the sky — a subtle, maybe even inadvertent, nod towards surrealism. A reminder that paintings don’t have to make sense.
Much has been made of the fact that Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, and it’s not lost on me that Immersive’s venue is located in the Northeast Arts District. Walking out of the press preview earlier in the week, at 10am on a Tuesday, I actually had a hard time getting out the door as people waited in line to get in, fumbling with their tickets and their masks. I hope they enjoy the light show that their money has bought, and I wonder where else they and their dollars will go once they leave. I hope they feel inclined to walk across the street to visit artists at the Thorp Building or the Northrup King Building or the Casket Arts Building or any of the other old warehouses in the neighborhood that are also packed floor to ceiling with art. Those are good places to drop some coin as well, though admittedly less well marketed. As the bumper sticker says “Buy art from living artists — the dead ones don’t need the money.”
I will say this for the Immersive Van Gogh: it led me on this little journey, through two films, several articles, an old book from my grandfather, and one of my favorite museums, and I feel closer to the art and the artist because of that. All mispronounced puns aside, go if you want. I can’t tell you how to spend your money. But also go visit the living artists, too. Or go visit the Olive Trees. Or maybe take a cue from the old man himself, and just go outside. As luck would have it, the sunflowers are in bloom. ◼︎
Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Minneapolis is on view through October at 1515 Central Ave. Tickets required.
Olive Trees is on view as part of the permanent collection at Mia, 2400 Third Ave S in Minneapolis. Free admission, open Thurs - Sun 10am - 5pm.
Nearby Northeast Arts District studio buildings, all walkable from Immersive Van Gogh include:
Northrup King Building, at 1500 Jackson St NE, is open to the public everyday 8am-8pm, with designated open studios every Saturday 12-4pm and the First Thursday of every month 5-9pm. Art Attack, their Fall event, is November 5th-7th.
Casket Arts, at 681 17th Ave NE, has designated open studios every Second Saturday 11am-4pm. Open Casket, their Fall event, is November 5th-7th.
Solar Arts Building, at 711 15th Ave NE, has designated open studios every First Thursday 5-9pm. Art This Way, their Fall event, is November 5th-7th.
Q.arma Building, at 1224 Quincy St NE, has regular studio sales and events, posted on social media.
Thorp Building, at 1618-1620 Central Ave NE, hosts their Fall event, Thorp Warp, November 5th-7th.
There are several other studio buildings and active artist studios in the neighborhood as well. For a larger directory of locations and artists based in and around Northeast, visit nemaa.org, and for other news and resources, visit northeastminneapolisartsdistrict.org.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.