In 1885, after seeing Rembrandt’s painting known as The Jewish Bride for the first time, Van Gogh declared: « I should be happy to give 10 years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food. »
For many 21st century viewers, though, the experience of being alone with a painting is less nourishing. What am I looking at? How long should I stand here? What am I supposed to feel? « Forget traditions of tiptoeing through unnervingly silent galleries and viewing paintings from afar, » instructs the introduction to Van Gogh Alive. This exhibition at the Royal Hall of Industries in Moore Park takes these uncertainties out of the picture by taking the audience through a « large-scale, multisensory experience » in 45 minutes.
Splashed across the equivalent of 30 IMAX screens up to seven metres high and accompanied by a soundtrack of popular classical music, ranging from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to the Harry Potter soundtrack, Van Gogh Alive tells the story of the Dutch master’s life using images of 2000 sketches, drawings and paintings.
Each chapter has a short text introduction similar to what one would encounter in each room of a traditional exhibition, but here the similarities largely end, as the images appear in quick succession, juxtaposed with other atmospheric footage like crashing waves and fields of sunflowers. Van Gogh’s iconic paintings are animated to include a moving view of the Paris skyline, falling cherry blossom petals, and crows ominously taking flight from a field at the sound of a gunshot.
The images used apparently constitute the largest collection of van Gogh’s work ever presented, and Van Gogh Alive represents a breadth rather than a depth of experience – like leafing through a book on the artist. There are so many fascinating elements to Van Gogh’s life story and Van Gogh Alive barely scratches the surface of all of them. Being able to look at large scale at several of the artist’s paintings of his Bedroom in Arles side by side is fascinating, for example, but in a heartbeat the images have moved on.
The project is the brainchild of Bruce Peterson, the CEO of Grande Exhibitions, who conceived of this mode of exhibition-making after observing his young children’s lack of interest in the museums of Europe. The introduction of music, moving image, multimedia and multisensory elements is certainly more likely to engage children, but it is also clearly a response to the changing attention span of the 21st century viewer.
While many contemporary artists already use these new technologies in their works, Van Gogh Alive invites viewers to explore historically significant works in a new way – even if nothing can replace the experience of sitting in front of these paintings, quietly.
Vincent van Gogh, Exhibition
World news – AU – Ready, steady, Gogh! Artist’s ‘Alive’ exhibition takes uncertainty out of art