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Show coming to Del Mar Fairgrounds offers immersive chance to get to know van Gogh

“Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” is a three-dimensional journey featuring 300 works of art by Vincent van Gogh.
(Courtesy of Paquin Entertainment Group)

During his 37-year lifetime, Vincent van Gogh was virtually unknown as an artist, perpetually impoverished and, by most accounts, mentally unstable.

Today, he is among a handful of artists such as Picasso, Dali, Monet and Warhol who have become pop stars.

Reproductions of van Gogh’s most revered paintings can be seen on mass-produced prints, posters, T-shirts and calendars. The life and work of the 19th-century Dutch artist are explored in books, movies and documentaries.

Yet, to experience a van Gogh work in person typically requires going to a handful of museums around the world.

In such venues, a viewer may have a fleeting moment to glimpse a van Gogh amid long lines. Such opportunities are even more limited amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enter “Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” which is scheduled to run Friday, Jan. 14, through Sunday, March 6, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ Wyland Center.

The show, which has been on tour in North America and soon will travel to the Southern Hemisphere, promises a spectacular three-dimensional journey through the artist’s world, thanks to advanced audiovisual technology.

“It’s very much an experience that was created with the pandemic in mind,” said Montreal-based art historian Fanny Curtat, a consultant on the project. “It allows people to be spread around and still have a cultural experience [while] maintaining health measures.”

Curtat said the producers of the project — also Canadian — approached the Normal Studio in Montreal and its creative director, Mathieu St-Arnaud, with the idea of putting together the show.

“It was up to the studio to find a new spin on this experience because there are already immersive experiences on van Gogh,” Curtat said. “So it was all about finding something else to say about it, something to be really in tune with the subject itself.

“And that’s where I come in as an art historian. It was all about creating sort of a dialogue between the immersive structure — this device of enchantment — and the craving for beauty and the sort of need for purpose that you find in van Gogh’s work.”

The show, which takes about an hour to go through, consists of three sections: an introductory hall with panels illuminating texts taken from van Gogh’s own words; a portal called the “waterfall room” that conveys viewers to the final space; and the immersive room, in which van Gogh’s images are projected onto large panels from ceiling to roof and choreographed to music.

Vincent van Gogh’s "The Starry Night" is part of "Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience."
(Courtesy of Paquin Entertainment Group)

“You are literally walking among the colors and the brush strokes,” Curtat said. “You are surrounded by large screens that go up to the ceiling. It’s really all around you. You’re walking through it. When you have kids in it, they are just running around, following the brush strokes, following the colors.

“It’s really allowing the audience to go beyond the frame, to set foot into the paintings themselves. So it’s sort of a fantasy of really being inside the world created by the artist and really to have a new angle on the vision of the world that he was putting forth.”

Works such as the iconic “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers” are naturals for such luminescent treatments among the 300 van Gogh works represented in the exhibition.

In his book “History of Art,” H.W. Janson discusses the visual excitement of a celebrated van Gogh piece:

“In ‘Wheat Field and Cypress Trees,’ both earth and sky show an overpowering turbulence — the wheat field resembles a stormy sea, the trees spring flame-like from the ground, the hills and clouds heave with the same undulant motion. The dynamism contained in every brush stroke makes of each one not merely a deposit of color but an incisive graphic gesture.”

Curtat said “Beyond van Gogh” illustrates the uplifting nature of the artist’s paintings, created as he struggled with crushing psychological episodes toward the end of his life while living mostly in southern France.

“Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience”
“It’s really allowing the audience to go beyond the frame, to set foot into the paintings themselves,” says art historian Fanny Curtat, a consultant on “Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.”
(Courtesy of Paquin Entertainment Group)

Most famously, van Gogh severed at least part of his left ear with a razor, resulting in severe bleeding and hospitalization. He died in July 1890, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“There’s so much more to van Gogh than just the ear-cutting incident,” Curtat said. “That’s the whole point of this experience — to go beyond the darkness of the myths, beyond the struggling artist, mad-genius legend that he’s associated with, because all of this is true only to a certain extent. Most of the time, it sort of gets in the way of how you perceive his work.

“All the darkness in his life — that’s really not what you see when you look at a van Gogh painting. So this [“Beyond van Gogh”] experience is really trying to put the focus on ... the light and the beauty and the colors that he put into his work, and the fact that painting and nature were healing to him.”

“There’s something very inspiring about somebody who’s been through these struggles in ways similar and sometimes wildly different from what we’re going through right now,” Curtat added. “But it’s so inspiring to see this ability to transcend the pain in your life and just see the beauty in the world around you.”

The show can offer the additional benefit of encouraging visitors to develop an appreciation for art and van Gogh that they might not have experienced before.

“It’s a great thing, I believe, for people who are a little bit intimidated by museums and might not feel that art is for them, or who might not understand how a 19th-century artist can be relevant to a 21st-century audience,” Curtat said.

“I’m hoping an experience like this sort of bridges this gap. By allowing an audience to create a connection with van Gogh, maybe the next time they’re in a town where a van Gogh is at a museum, they’ll be curious about experiencing the aura and sheer magic of an original van Gogh painting.”

For tickets and more information about the “Beyond van Gogh” exhibit, visit vangoghsandiego.com. ◆