Vincent Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience

Brendan Byrne ‘22

I recently took a trip to Manhattan with my family in celebration of my Aunt’s 50th Birthday. The purpose of the trip was to attend the Vincent Van Gogh Immersive Experience, an event held in a film studio in New York City, in which a showcase of the legendary painter’s infinitely brilliant work takes on a new form, becoming something beautiful and revolutionary. My Aunt has always loved Vincent Van Gogh and his art, and so it was a dream of hers to one day attend this very experience that showcases him in such a majestic way. This artist has one of the most fascinating and beautiful, even poetic, stories in art history, and had the mind and heart of a true painter. The Vincent Van Gogh Immersive Experience demonstrates his art in a way that many have never seen, and I believe that it is one of the most worthwhile experiences of this year, something that very well may change your perspective on beauty, and your concept of it. 

Van Gogh is known as one of the most talented and influential artists in history, and is the very image of the tortured creative. He made works in his unique and fantastic style from the age of 27 to only 10 years later when he died by his own hand. His works range from stunningly gorgeous to hauntingly dark, but no matter where you look, you find the beauty and awe that Van Gogh had for the world, and for life. This awe and love inspired many of his greatest pieces. There are stories lying betwixt the myriad of pieces that Van Gogh is responsible for, stories of his pain and his illness, of his great love that was lost, of the chaos in his mind and existence.

Paradoxes were one of the greatest themes in Van Gogh’s life, such as the outstanding moment that was his most legendary painting, Starry Night. His circumstances prior to creating this piece are the most important part of its story, his spiraling mental health and the ways in which he coped being the source of a period of great creativity for him. After an argument with his roommate, and acclaimed artist, Paul Gaugin, he sliced off his own ear, and thus began the cascading staircase into delusion and pain that became his last year and a half. The episodes that Van Gogh experienced, as they worsened, primarily consisted of delusion and lack of lucidity; he had no idea nor control over his actions and thoughts. 

As things continued to become too much for Vincent to handle on his own, he admitted himself to a mental hospital. It was from here where Vincent was torn from the outside world where so much of his inspiration and passion came from. While in the asylum, he was only able to paint outdoors for brief periods of time in a designated area, or in his room, and because of this deprivation of what normally gave him his life’s joy, he began to lose himself. This was when he created Starry Night, a striking image of a dark, small town overwhelmed by the chaotic beauty of the swirling night sky, and the oppressive cypress tree that’s presence loomed. The wondrous and fantastical imagery of the sky as opposed to that of the minuscule, almost pathetic, town represented Van Gogh’s thoughts on life as he painted from memory, something he was actively opposed to doing. The sky represented the freedom that he desired, the love for the outside world that he was once so in tune with, once was able to love, and now was kept from it in a small room where he could only experience life through memory. It represented that lust for truly living, but contrastingly, it represented how overwhelming this life outside the safe walls of the asylum seemed. Van Gogh checked himself into where he was because he felt unsafe, overwhelmed, like he couldn’t live out there, and that too is shown in how the stars swirl so massively overhead, how overpowering the light is compared to what could be seen as the comforting dimness of the town. The town in its darkness is an equally powerful part of the painting, showing the depths of depression that Van Gogh was feeling in the asylum. The town is small, like his room, dark, like his heart, and everything seemed to represent the dim image of humanity that juxtaposed the bright one he previously held. 

In what can be seen as a previous rendition of this most famous image, Starry Night Over the Rhone has the opposite effect. In this lesser known painting, the beauty of the night sky is not particularly understated, but does not have the same sense of chaos and overwhelming, it does not outshine the town nor represent some sort of unbridled, almost malevolent energy that makes its presence known in front of all else. Instead it is subtle and calm, soft spoken. Its reflection in the water is gentle and drawn out, and it creates a foreground for the backdrop that is the true center of the image. The town’s bright lights create long beams on the surface of the water, contrasting with the soft glows of the sky, and yet the colors are the same, as though the colors of the lights that represent humanity are the same colors as those that represent the beauty of the sky. The homes, despite how far away they appear, seem warm and comforting, they are safe and as beautiful as the overhanging expanse. The mirror of the water to the sky is the same as Van Gogh’s idea of humanity and its beauty as a mirror to nature, and nature as a mirror to the idea of beauty itself. Every factor of the painting, even, has meaning to when Van Gogh was alive, truly alive. The distance from the town, which demonstrates humanity’s beauty and his love for it, shows that while he always appreciated and wanted to show this love to humanity, he still felt distant and separated, he could feel the disconnect between him and his tortured mind, with the rest of the people who would never understand him fully. Even in just these two paintings, we can see the many sides and dimensions of Vincent and his wild, incomprehensible, and most of all beautiful mind.

Van Gogh’s art is at the core of this immersive experience held in Battery Park, in New York City. It is a place where you can see and read about every one of these marvelous pieces, from his earliest self portraits to his final painting, one of tree roots. There’s detailed information and beautiful video shows sourced from projectors using brilliantly edited compilations of his works. These edited compilations and various projections, including one on a large bust of Vincent’s head, are striking, but have nothing to compare with the primary attraction, the massive room in which a light show decorates the multistory walls and the expansive floor, decorated with Van Gogh inspired rugs and chairs.

This masterful combination of what seemed to be dozens of projectors casting out images of Van Gogh’s greatest works all pieced together into one never ceasing show that detailed every era of his work, every point of his inspiration, and showed many the true beauty behind his use of color and shape. Throughout the entire experience there were places to appreciate his art and the themes within it, from the sunflowers on the walls as you made your way up the stairs, each story you traveled up showing you different self portraits he made throughout the years, to the museum-like structure of the directly informative portions where details about his personal life and growth, and about the circumstances surrounding some of his lesser known paintings, like that of the tree roots.

There were rooms where his paintings almost wallpapered them, and there were three-dimensional reproductions of some of his most famous works, like that of the inside of his room, utilizing actual chairs, a table, and a bed that could be sat on or even laid in. Every aspect of the tour of this exhibit was spectacular for a different reason, truly giving me, and many others, a new appreciation for the art of this man that many often take for granted, without looking into it, without understanding it and him as a product of his pain. The showstopper truly was the massive room in which the light show took place, and I believe that if that were even the only part of the experience, it would still be worth attending. There are so many reasons to attend something like this, something that really has the power and potential to change your perspective on the world, or even just on an artist. To see beauty in the world like Van Gogh did would be like seeing the face of God, and to see the face of God would bring any man to insanity. It was that insanity, though, that created history’s greatest painter, so one might wonder how the mind is truly meant to work.

Armando Gimenez