Just over 20 years ago now I craned my neck amidst a small crowd to take a close-up look at 70 paintings by the iconic Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. It was 1999, and I had only recently activated my first cellphone - no camera on that one, for certain, and I was one of the hundreds of thousands of people with tickets to "Van Gogh's Van Goghs," a touring exhibit stopping at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The paintings are, as it turns out, generally quite small. Not wanting to fire off too many elbow jabs, I did my best to see what I could. I remember having a rare moment to myself just two feet from the colourful brushstrokes of "The Bedroom," with its bright blue walls and cherry-red bed blanket.
While there can be no complete substitute for seeing art up close and personal, there is a dazzling contemporary way to experience about 200 of Van Gogh's paintings that puts you nearly inside the paintings themselves, thanks to projections that span massive walls and the entire floor. Set to stirring music with portions of the paintings animated, the touring "Imagine Van Gogh" is a unique and immersive experience that offers a parallel way to appreciate art.
Taking place through the end of August in Vancouver, "Imagine Van Gogh" uses projections of the masterpieces, archival photos, and letters to turn a typically passive viewer into an active and engaged spectator. The exhibit is set up inside Vancouver Convention Centre West, with custom-made eight-metre walls stretching even higher here in Vancouver than elsewhere in Canada for the show, thanks to the venue's high ceilings.
Immersive exhibit began in France
Created by French Artistic Directors Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron, famous for their immersive exhibits Cathédrale d’Images in Les Baux-de-Provence, Imagine Van Gogh was presented first by Encore Productions in France.
Fans of Netflix's Emily in Paris may recall the title character checking out a Van Gogh projection show as one of her adventures in the City of Lights. That particular show isn't this one, but uses a similar construct and was done by Atelier des Lumieres; I, too, checked that show out in Paris in 2019 and found it absolutely mesmerizing.
The experience of seeing a show like "Imagine Van Gogh" during the COVID-19 pandemic immediately creates a more user-friendly atmosphere, ironically, at least when it comes to getting to enjoy the show without crowds. Working closely with Vancouver Coastal Health, organizers have sold tickets in timed blocks and keep the room at a designated low capacity. And while children under three are free, because of strict capacity limits, those little guests must be ticketed in order to be granted entry. Social distancing is required inside the Convention Centre and exhibit, and there is no sitting down on the ground to watch the projections. Face masks are mandatory, and attendees must submit a COVID-19 contact tracing and pre-screening questionnaire upon arrival.
The lower capacity means you aren't going to need to elbow anyone to get a good look, though the sheer scope of the projections also guarantees there's no bad spot to view the show. The projection, or show, is about 35 minutes long and is on a loop, so if you happen to walk in and you missed something, you can stick around inside to get back to the point at which you came in. Ahead of the presentation space, you'll walk through the "education" room with a series of panels explaining some of Van Gogh's life story as well as how the exhibit came to be; the panels don't seem to have a clear sequence, so if you are impatient or with small kids, you might want to do the reading before or after your visit on the show's website.
And then step inside to really step inside the work of Van Gogh: Bask in the night sky of "Starry Night," feel the golden sun beating down on the wheat fields, feel the optimism of spring with the blooming of "Almond Blossom," and step inside the blue walls of "The Bedroom." It's almost as if you can feel the wool of the cherry-red blanket on the bed.
Imagine Van Gogh - Vancouver
When: Now through Aug. 29, 2021
Where: Vancouver Convention Centre West - 1055 Canada Pl, Vancouver (Enter from Jack Poole Plaza)
Cost: Adult (16+): Mon-Thu $39.99, Fri-Sun $49.99; Child (4-15): Mon-Thu $34.99, Fri-Sun $44.99; VIP packages: $99.99 (includes : Imagine Van Gogh’s 1 mask, 1 poster and 1 program); Children 3 and under free but must be ticketed. Purchase tickets online. No tickets sold on site.