Media City, Salford Quays, Greater Manchester
October 22nd 2021 – January 23rd 2022
Reviewed by Sandra Gibson
The promised immersive experience* does happen; Vincent Van Gogh is enlivened to the senses and to the soul. His paintings – the famous ones and the ones less known – are projected huge, in their entirety or in parts, on walls, ceiling and floor. The counterpoint to the surround-impact of colour are his words (on nature, cosmic awareness, art, suffering,) projected white on black. The emotional impact is intensified by music chosen to reflect mood in the chronologically structured sequence. It is interesting to see the changes in Van Gogh’s palette – from the sombre Northern paintings of people eating potatoes to the light-suffused landscapes of Southern France. Interesting too to be reminded of his powerful use of red in works such as The Red Vineyards at Arles (1888) because we invariably think of his yellows and blues. The Japanese influence and Van Gogh’s post-impressionist style set him in his specific era; the compassionate humanity in his portraits of ordinary people and the cosmological flow of his passionate brushwork set him beyond such constraints. He is timeless.
Van Gogh’s struggles as a human being and as a painter are well documented. What I hadn’t realised was that he was only a painter for a decade. He didn’t start until he was 27; he killed himself when he was 37. There is a danger that such a painter, now commodified on tablecloths and fridge magnets and made notorious for having sliced off his ear, will become a cliché. His imagery is so familiar it is impossible, from our image-saturated perspective, to realise just how impactful (in a negative and in a positive sense) his work was in his time and subsequently. Yet the Van Gogh Alive audience, resting in light and colour, was mesmerised, reverential. Everyone knows that gallery spaces are designed for kids to run about in. Not these kids – they were sitting in liquid colour on the floor.
Does this way of presenting art indicate a direction for the future of exhibitions? It seems to me that the illumination and enlargement of the paintings on screens and the audience’s envelopment in their multi-directional beauty, to the accompaniment of music and word, all contributed to the refreshment and resurrection of Van Gogh’s oeuvre. But should the traditionalist in me insist on seeing the actual painting at its actual size, in its actual medium, unadorned by other media? Well of course you want to be close to the painting, to experience the vigour of the three-dimensional brushstrokes, to stand at the same viewpoint the artist would have had in relation to the work all those years ago and to feel the emotion. The thing is – you can now have it all: the traditional and the contemporary viewing. Seeing a great painting will always be a great experience in its own right. The poignant music of Erik Satie enhances the humanity of Van Gogh’s painting – it doesn’t distract or detract from it. Nor does the communality of the occasion inhibit individual response, which in my case was very emotional: joy at the sunflowers; sorrow at the crows.
*SENSORY4TM is a technological system that combines multichannel motion graphics, cinema quality surround sound and up to 40 high-definition projectors to provide a multiscreen environment. Developed by Grande Exhibitions.