As ‘Beyond Van Gogh’ opens in Fresno, an art historian offers viewing tips, discusses the painter’s use of color, and muses on the blending of technology and art
Welcome to Fresno, Vincent.
The “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” exhibition opens Friday at the Fresno Convention Center, and interest is high. Just ask the dozens of people who have entered my giveaway contest for a pair of “anytime” tickets to the much-anticipated exhibition. (You still have time to enter: The deadline is midnight Thursday, May 26, and I’ll be informing the winner on Friday.) An opening reception for invited guests is this evening; I’ll be there and will plan to do a Facebook Live update at 6 p.m. from the convention center.
For my monthly CMAC show, I got a chance last week to have a Zoom discussion with Fanny Curtat, the art historian connected to the exhibition. (She was on the East Coast at the time overseeing another opening.) You can watch that interview here:
We talk about the set-up of the exhibition, what people can expect in each of the three major rooms, and then get into a discussion about “art stuff” — Van Gogh’s use of color, the challenge of picking which works to show, the artist’s journey from darker canvases to lighter ones. We also touched on some of the pushback that the exhibition has received across the country, namely that the experience is more about hype and technology than actual art.
Here’s the transcript (lightly edited) for those who’d prefer to read, not watch.
Donald: It’s great to talk with you, Fanny. So, where are you? I know that you’re on the East Coast.
Fanny: Right now, I am in Providence, Rhode Island, for another opening of the “Beyond Van Gogh” experience. The great thing about this show is that we can bring it to as many people as possible, because it really is for everybody.And so
Donald: At any given time, how many of your exhibitions are playing across the country?
Fanny: It can be a lot, sometimes it’s been four or five. And so that’s a great thing about this show. It was created during the pandemic. They had the idea of creating a show that could travel easily with not a lot of people. We were trying to social distance, keep everything streamlined. And so this show takes a small crew. It takes about two weeks to set up.
Donald: Can you set the scene for people what the exhibition involves? I understand there’s three major rooms. Can you walk us through what people can expect?
Fanny: Yes, the exhibition has three rooms. The first is the Introduction Hall. It’s a chance for people to get to learn more about Vincent more than the cutting-ear incident, more than “Starry Night,” and you can connect to his work in a different way and understand how it’s so relevant, why we’re still talking about him. And also they get to read his own words, which is truly unique. We have this treasure trove of information and insight on his work, on himself, in his own words, through the correspondence of 18 years with his brother. So they get to experience a very personal approach to Van Gogh.
Fanny: And then they get to the second room, which we call the Waterfall Room, which is sort of to prepare the mind for something that’s unconventional, that’s different than a museum setting. And also to prepare the body for something that can be a little bit of a trippy experience. Then you set foot in the last room, the Immersive Room, where everything moves around you. It’s entirely dedicated to Vincent’s work, and the works are just flowing around you, brought to life with the animation and the projection. So it’s a really, really unique experience. And the whole thing takes about an hour or so depending on the rhythm people want to take reading the text at the beginning, being inside the room, feel the work around them.
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Donald: So you are a doctoral candidate at the University of Quebec in Montreal. And you were brought into this project to give art expertise. How much did you know about Van Gogh before you got involved?
Fanny: That’s the great thing about a project like this. Because I knew a lot, but I knew more of the theoretical side. So where does (Van Gogh) fit in, in the larger scheme of things, and how do we interpret his work in a sociological point of view, an anthropological point of view. A project like this was a great opportunity to get to know him more personally, and get into the details of his life and really his life story. And that’s why it’s so important for me, for people to really go beyond the darkness of the myth that’s around him, and that his whole life and work is always brought back down to the lowest point in his life, which is this crisis of the ear-cutting incident. This project was an opportunity for me to learn more about his depth about the childlike wonder that you find in these letters and at times the philosophical depth that you find also there. And so that was a great way for me to connect with his work very differently.
Donald: I know one of your goals is to try to dispel some of the rumors and myths that have grown up around Van Gogh. What What surprised you the most in your research? What did you discover about him?
Fanny: There was an approach to his work that I knew, but when you read it in his own words, it’s a very different thing. You realize that there’s almost a sort of sacredness to the work. He tried to be a preacher like his father, and he failed, and you really get a sense that his work is really imbued with a sense of sublime, something that’s really overpowering us. And that’s a dimension to his work that I did not fully grasp until really I went into these letters and looked at the work differently. And I think it’s so why we connect so much with his work is that it’s not only about what you see, it’s about the sort of healing quality of nature that we perceive. It’s about the energy of the world. It’s really about finding solution, from the darkness in one’s life, into nature, into the power of color. And there was also something to be said about the importance of Theo, of course, but learning more about Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have anything about Van Gogh because he passed away before his work was popular enough to stand on its own, and Theo mere months after the incident. Joanna was really the one, who with a six-month old baby and all of these paintings from a very eccentric brother in law, took it upon herself to get the work out there circulating in the world. And so she was really the unsung hero of that story.
Donald: It’s a really remarkable story. Johanna is essentially a model for the world’s best art marketer. Now I know that you have a lot of paintings to choose from, for that third room. Did you have a hand in that and how did you decide what to use?
Fanny: Some pieces are unavoidable. I think it would be almost cruel to do an experience like this and not include “Starry Night,” or the sunflowers, or some of these very iconic pieces like “Cafe Terrace at Night.” But there is also this dialogue that we had between the pieces that were important, and the phases of his life that were important, but also an image that was high enough quality that the animators could actually use that. So it was really a team process in terms of choosing what they could do. And also what would inspire the team and finding how can we breathe new life into this work without destroying its essence. And so it was really a group conversation.
But it was really this idea of curating a journey, from the beginning when his work is much darker. He’s learning, he’s painting the Netherlands around him, darker tones, darker figures, and then he gets to Paris, and then discovers the brightness of the Impressionists. And already you feel this turning point. Everything gets brighter, and then you get to the south of France and then you have just this explosion of color and vivid brushstrokes that we know and love him for it. That was really the idea guiding the group process of choosing between almost 850 paintings that he did during his life. And if you add the watercolors and drawings and everything, you get almost 1,000 pieces. So it was really about choosing specific pieces that fit everybody’s needs for a project like this.
Donald: So you wanted to be sure to start with that darker period to kind of show that transition or that journey that he made. And when he got to the end of that journey, or near the end of that journey, in the south of France, his colors are so are so amazing and so distinctive. Do you have any thoughts about that? He obviously wasn’t like a regular human being, right? He really saw the world in in a particular way.
Fanny: Yes, and it wasn’t just instinct. So of course he works very rapidly, very quickly, because there’s an intensity to the brushstroke. He can feel it. But he was also very, very knowledgeable about color theory and very thoughtful about the use of color. There was a symbolic use color for him. They were imbued with a certain power. For example, the color yellow was very important because of course it’s the color of the sun. Sun gives us life. The sunflower was so important for him because there were sort of a crude flower … they were sort of rough, but also they are the flower of gratitude because they turn towards the sun. And so yellow is infused with the power. He’s very thoughtful about the way he used color and complementary colors that makes it so that there’s movement. The colors are fighting one another. He’s not blending them so much as putting them side by side. And so you really feel an intensity in his work. Of course he’s reacting to what he’s seeing and feeling. But he’s also very aware of the power of color and what it can do. And that’s really the goal of this exploration. And by the end of the his life and the south of France, you really have this unique style that make it so that anybody who’s not familiar with art history or his work particularly might be able to identify a Van Gogh because he’s just so unique.
Donald: You’re very careful with this exhibition to let people know that this is not a museum. It is a depiction of his works. Some of what you do is adding animation. I understand there are twinkling stars, that kind of thing. As an academic, how is that gone over with your colleagues who are much more kind of the straight laced, museum type. Do you get any pushback on that?
Fanny: Yes, and I think it’s entirely legitimate. I wouldn’t expect anything else from the art world but to question everything that’s happening, the influence of technology in the way we see images and feel art. There is something to question there undeniably. What do social media, Instagram, selfies — what does they do to the way we interact with the world? I don’t think these experiences are in any way ever going to be a replacement for a museum experience. There’s nothing like the magic of an original. If anybody gets a chance to be in New York and see the original “Starry Night,” it’s something to behold. And so it’s really not about replacing that. It’s about providing a different experience.
For a lot of people, museums can be intimidating. So this could be a good bridge for an introduction to the art world. And there’s also something to be said about this technology not going anywhere. I think this is pretty much a tide at this point. And so we might as well see what it does, what it can do, in terms of bridging audiences, in terms of providing other points of view and familiar work. And my hope is that eventually people who might have been intimidated by a museum before, through this connection they will have developed with his work, they’ll be curious about experiencing the real thing if they get the chance. So it’s really about finding bridges for me, but there’s nothing wrong about questioning all of this. I would expect anything else from the art world.
Donald: Well, there’s something really special about thinking about those people who weren’t going to see his work for the very first time. This will be their exposure. Have you talked to any of those people?
Fanny: I would say that a lot of people usually coming in are familiar with “Starry Night,” because it’s a bit unavoidable at this point. And usually most people know the ear-cutting incident. But then they see everything else. And then that’s where the work is actually powerful. That’s where it starts impacting them because they are going inside of it. They are breathing to it. And you have all the different reactions that we expect from art. It’s always going to touch people differently. It’s always going to be a different truth that resonates with different people. And so you get to see that.
For some people, they’re touched, and they get tearful, and for others there’s almost like a childlike reaction of twirling around along with the petals that are moving around you. So it’s going to affect people differently. But for a lot of people, this is a great introduction. And a lot of people bring their kids, for whom it’s great also because they get to run around, follow the brushstrokes, follow the light and the colors. And even if you are familiar with his work — like for me — it was almost like the fantasy of being inside the work I knew and loved before. And scale changes everything. When you have a painting you have a more intimate connection to it. You are leaning over it. It’s a different level. But if you have it on the projection wall all around you on the floor, on such a big scale, it’s overpowering you. It does something else. You’re in the middle of it. And so it’s a really, really different experience. But like I said before, the museum experience is also great. This is also phenomenal. It’s about having both and appreciating what this different point of view can bring.
Donald: And like you say: This technology is here, and you might as well use it. Is there anything else you wanted to let people know about the exhibition?
Fanny: I would just say that music plays a big role also. The whole goal is about connecting a 21st century audience to a 19th century artist, showing how relevant he still is, how much impact his work still has. To have somebody struggling so much in his life, and yet transcending all of that in works of art works, of beauty, and all of this blends with the music. It really resonates strongly and I think it speaks to the power of his work. I’m excited for people to see it.