Van Gogh Immersions are this summer’s blockbuster exhibitions. Currently, New York City boasts two competing experiences; Immersive Van Gogh and Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. Both are located in Manhattan, have similar running times, and project the artist’s rich oeuvre onto the walls for guests. While the Van Gogh Immersive experience is unique and arguably interesting, it suffers from three major flaws. Ultimately the experience’s hyper-focus on being a consumerist cash grab ends up detracting from and denigrating the artwork, life, and legacy of the great Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh.
I decided to Gogh to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. How did I choose? Through my research, I found that overall presentation was more educational than the competing show. Exhibit labels attempted to provide guests with information about the artist and his paintings. Some of the topics ranged from a timeline, a bulleted list of important facts about Van Gogh, and a detailed analysis of his last known painting. Quotes from the artist were scattered throughout the exhibit and repeated in the immersive experience.
My favorite section in the educational area analyzed three versions of the artist’s Bedroom in Arles. This presentation would not be possible in a museum, because these paintings are housed in Amsterdam, Paris, and the United States. The Immersive Experience juxtaposes the three versions and invites guests to pick out stylistic differences among the pieces. Another unique element to this exhibition is life-sized recreation of the Bedroom in Arles painting that guests are invited to explore. Sitting down in the chair, you are physically transported inside the work.
Now, onto the main event: the immersion. As I made my way through a dark corridor, I pulled back a curtain and was met with walls washed in a rich aqua blue. I walked into the experience as The Starry Night consumed the space. I quickly made my way to a lawn chair that had the same pattern as the swirling starts around me. The immersion occurs in a 20,000 square foot room on the walls and the floor. The show from start to finish runs for about 30 minutes. The immersion had extended interactions with Starry Night and Van Gogh’s flowers, but also attempted to showcase the artist’s various paintings at different stages of his career.
Overall, I was not impressed with the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. Am I happy I got the chance to Gogh? Yes, however art lovers are likely to find that these Van Gogh “experiences” are but cheap imitations of the real thing. The focus on sensory overload, distracting music, and social media engagement detracts from the more genuine experience of visiting an art museum and physically standing in front of an original artwork. One of my favorite pieces made a brief cameo, Rain (1889). Projected far away, I could not see the slashes of paint Vincent scattered throughout the canvas nor view the various colors combinations he employed in the work. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I can have an intimate encounter with Rain in Gallery 261. This painting left such an impression on me that I was able to pick it out while sitting across the room in the immersion.
I understand that this blockbuster exhibition was not meant to replicate an art gallery experience, but it unfortunately fell short. Guests paid anywhere from $40-$65 to view cheaply made prints of the artist’s works on the walls of Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. Compare this with the “pop-up” Van Gogh Exhibitions sponsored by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam which appeared in malls and shopping centers around America in 2018. I attended one such exhibit, where guests paid a reasonable $5 admission fee. On display were nine three-dimensional replicas from the museum’s collection. While these were also copies, visitors could appreciate the Van Gogh Museum’s strident efforts to maintain the artwork’s integrity as well as the artist’s story. Rather than an obvious money-grab meant to cater to Instagram personalities, the Van Gogh Museum went to great lengths to allow wider audiences the ability to view Van Gogh pieces. These exhibits even encouraged visitors to reach out and touch the 3-D prints to fully familiarize themselves with the groves and thick brushstrokes so unique to Van Gogh’s style. As someone who has not had the chance to travel to Amsterdam (yet) I appreciated the museum’s attempt to reach a wider audience – and the incredible gift shop. This “experience” was far more enlightening than other areas of the immersion.
Would I have enjoyed Immersive Van Gogh more? Perhaps. Yet I suspect it falls victim to similar flaws. If you are located around New York City, I would encourage you the visit the Museum of Modern Art or The MET to view real, authentic Van Goghs that won’t dance across the wall.
Let me know in the comments below if you had the chance to Gogh!