At first glance, you know exactly what you’re looking at – the staccato brushstrokes, the light dancing across the canvas, the signature contrast of blue and yellow that evokes memories you’re not sure whether you’ve lived or dreamed… At first glance, everyone knows Van Gogh. However, as you walk through the doorway of Beyond Van Gogh, you find yourself not in a museum, but in the world of a painting itself, the scene of it freed from the confines of the frame and taking on a life of its own beneath your very feet and across all four walls. You slowly turn to take in the full view and begin to experience what once seemed so familiar in an entirely new light.
Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is a dynamic curation of the titular artist’s body of work presented at several locations internationally. This review is specifically for the installation at the Anaheim Convention Center. Audiences are invited to step into the paintings of Van Gogh, which come to life in nuanced and surprising ways. Do not expect any narrative through-line, actors, quests, or puzzles—this experience is focused on the art and the connection that comes from it. Expect to spend between forty minutes and two hours at the exhibition, depending on your speed and desire to see everything.
The experience is themed around the dissolution of the separation between audience and art. The set design of the first room expertly orients audience members to this theme as the frames are physically separated from the art they traditionally belong to. This primes audiences to expect that this will not be a classical museum in which the art will be hung on walls. Already, the frames hang within the center of the room, and the art is no where to be seen. This disembodied art will soon make itself known, as guests progress further, and step into the art itself.
Beyond Van Gogh immerses audiences in with its projections. As mentioned above, there is no strong narrative or actors to follow, but that does not mean it is a passive experience. The projections flood the walls and the floor, offering audiences of all ages the chance to chase petals floating across the floor or follow the growth of a sunflower. At the OC exhibit, we were not contained to a singular viewing location; we were allowed to wander and see the differences all around. While sitting in one place allowed for comfortable viewing, there were notable changes in the art, with different quotes appearing, which allowed for repeat viewing. With nearly 360-degree effects, numerous projectors place this art across all columns, walls, and flooring in a massive auditorium. As such, everywhere you look, the art exists. But the art is not just static; rather, it moves, it ripples, it changes as you watch. Audiences watch these changes, and whether it is a landscape or a collage of portraits, there is always some movement to observe.
Accompanied by a perfectly- contemporary symphonic score, the images themselves cycle between one single painting wrapped around all projection surfaces and the presentation of a collage style panorama of several works which speak to each other in various ways. It was awe-inspiring to step into Starry Night and visibly see the water ripple under your feet. While the singular landscapes provided a more immersive moment, the collage styles offered a juxtaposition of his early work alongside his later work, which allowed the viewer to experience the development of his skill and style over a lifetime, in one sitting. As you take in the almost sublime scale of the art, you are guided occasionally by quotes, correspondence, and thoughtful remembrances of the artist by his contemporaries or historians.
In Beyond Van Gogh, the art is the storyteller. The room is dynamic, shifting the imagery by subject and style, granting the viewer a comprehensive overview of the artist’s life’s work rather than taking the viewer through the artist’s life one piece at a time. We were able to see the growth in his work, the changes in his style, and ultimately, just how prolific this artist was. Punctuated with quotes from contemporaries of his time, we watch Van Gogh’s art come to life, as sketches become paintings, and paintings shift to reflect his mindset. Yet, nothing can compare to the awe that was inspired when we stepped into the final room: we walked directly into the deep blues and brilliant yellows of Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhone (1888). The room itself was the canvas with the art projected on every surface available, and we found ourselves enveloped in the midst of a beautiful new kind of dynamic imagery.
The themes aren’t just contained to the art; the story itself focuses on Van Gogh and his relationships with those around him. I couldn’t help but admire the relationship between Vincent and Theo, the brother whose unwavering support enabled him to produce as prolifically as he did. The viewer is invited to learn about Van Gogh’s place in history and relationship with other influential artists of the day, including his roommate and fellow Post-Impressionist, Paul Gaugin, who was able to challenge Vincent to paint from imagination rather than strictly from nature, if only briefly. This insight helps to only humanize Van Gogh, allowing us to empathize with his struggles and find some hope in the support of a loved one.
We recommend this experience for museum fans, newcomers and children, seasoned art enthusiasts, and technophiles. If you prefer to avoid the crowds, Monday evening proved to be sparse enough to take in a full wall uninterrupted for minutes at a time, which was always breathtaking.
Ultimately, Beyond Van Gogh is an incredible experience that elevates the traditional museum experience and invites audiences to step into the art of Van Gogh and dance among his brushstrokes. It is innovative, inspiring, and beautiful. One can’t help but wonder if Van Gogh ever imagined his paintings might someday take on the life they have been given by the theatrical magic of Beyond Van Gogh.