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Immerse yourself in ‘Van Gogh Alive’ at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg

The multisensory touring exhibition makes its North American debut at the Dali Museum.

ST. PETERSBURG — Alive.

It’s a funny term to apply to a long-dead artist, but also extremely fitting for iconic Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh, whose paintings vibrate with energy.

And now, with “Van Gogh Alive,” opening at the Dali Museum on Nov. 21, those paintings feel even more energized. Presented by Australian company Grande Experiences, key van Gogh paintings are digitized and projected onto a series of large screens, walls and the floors in the galleries of the Hough Family wing. The exhibit uses projection mapping technology powered by a system developed by Grande Experiences.

The term “immersive experience” gets tossed around a lot, sometimes erroneously. “Van Gogh Alive” is one case where it definitely applies.

Related: Related: Fall Arts Preview: Tampa Bay's visual art scene proves to be resilient

From the pitch black, paintings begin to appear all around, staggered slightly, some details highlighted. Surrounded by the vibrant colors and thick impasto strokes, accompanied by the cinematic score of classical music, it really does feel like you’re inside the paintings. Walk in front of the projector, and you actually are.

Scenes from "Van Gogh Alive," during a media preview at the Dali Museum. The multimedia exhibition of Vincent van Gogh's beloved works that have been projected on large screens and on the floor. The exhibit opens Nov. 21, 2020.
Scenes from "Van Gogh Alive," during a media preview at the Dali Museum. The multimedia exhibition of Vincent van Gogh's beloved works that have been projected on large screens and on the floor. The exhibit opens Nov. 21, 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“Van Gogh Alive” is the latest effort in the Dalí Museum’s move toward the integration of art and technology. The museum has incorporated virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence in recent years.

Related: Related: Salvador Dali comes back to life in artificial intelligence with 'Dali Lives.'

With expansion plans in the works that include a wing specifically for digital exhibitions, executive director Hank Hine said they have been searching for a way to produce an experience similar to “Van Gogh Alive” with the museum’s collection of works by Salvador Dalí.

Related: Related: Here's how an expanded Dali Museum might look

“We were looking for a show that somebody else had produced that we could try this out on,” Hine said. “(Van Gogh Alive) is also being used as a kind of proof of concept; we will have a lot of exit polls to see how people feel about it.”

Hine said he was surprised to find some connections between van Gogh and Dalí. They’re not belabored in the exhibition. The museum strives to make these connections with their special exhibitions, but it’s not necessary here. The two were both visionaries; leave it at that.

Vincent van Gogh started painting at age 27 after a failed attempt at theological studies. Despite suffering from mental illness, he became an incredibly prolific artist, creating a staggering 2,000 pieces in 10 years. Yet he only sold one work in his lifetime. He’s now considered one of the most influential artists in the history of Western art. Tragically, he committed suicide at age 37.

Through a 40-minute presentation, “Van Gogh Alive” explores works from the 10-year period between 1880 and 1890 that the self-taught artist spent creating his body of masterpieces.

Beginning with a series of his piercing self-portraits — including the one with his bandaged ear — it’s organized into a narrative that highlights the way his paintings evolve over that time period, through hundreds of his most beloved and important works.

Vincent van Gogh's self-portraits as seen in "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dali Museum. It opens to the public on Nov. 21, 2020.
Vincent van Gogh's self-portraits as seen in "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dali Museum. It opens to the public on Nov. 21, 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Travel through his early period when he was living in the Netherlands and notice how stark they are. When he arrives in Paris in 1886, color begins to emerge in his paintings of flowers, lush gardens and luscious fruits.

A moderate use of animation in the paintings is a delightful touch. Birds suddenly come alive and fly; a train moves all the way around a wall. Other relevant images supplement the paintings.

Digital images supplement van Gogh's works in "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dali Museum. It opens to the public on Nov. 21, 2020.
Digital images supplement van Gogh's works in "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dali Museum. It opens to the public on Nov. 21, 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

One standout comes during a segment highlighting Japanese artwork’s influence on van Gogh that features his sublime Blossoming Almond Tree. Flower petals gently float across the screens, making the tree appear to blossom. It’s hard to imagine that piece could be improved upon, but this element takes it somewhere else.

Scenes from "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dali Museum include his artwork, "Blossoming Almond Tree."
Scenes from "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dali Museum include his artwork, "Blossoming Almond Tree." [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The score is perfectly matched to the mood of the paintings, creating sweeping overtures that build on the emotional aspect of the exhibit. Expect goosebumps.

Throughout the exhibit, quotes from letters van Gogh wrote to his younger brother and protector, Theo, appear. They contain insights into van Gogh’s progress as an artist, saying: “The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting” and “The sunflower is mine in a way.”

Vase with 12 Sunflowers, one of van Gogh’s most iconic paintings, gets a nice feature, representing his move to Arles in the south of France, where he was the most productive and happiest. But it was also the beginning of his descent into mental illness — he checked himself into a mental institution in Saint-Remy, France.

The works produced during this segment vary in tone, but include Starry Night, which is nothing short of magical, especially here as it slowly comes into fruition, morphing out of another painting, Starry Night over the Rhone, with glittering water and shooting stars.

Vincent van Gogh's painting "Starry Night over the Rhone" dazzles in "Van Gogh Alive," which opens at the Dali Museum on Nov. 21, 2020.
Vincent van Gogh's painting "Starry Night over the Rhone" dazzles in "Van Gogh Alive," which opens at the Dali Museum on Nov. 21, 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

It’s about this point when the emotional aspect of the exhibition turns from awe-inspiring to profoundly sad. Thinking about van Gogh’s mental illness while surrounded by his work in this immersive way takes on a different feeling

It’s particularly striking that parts of van Gogh’s legend, like cutting off his own ear and eating paint, have become so synonymous with him that it’s easy to detach them from the terrible pain he must have been in. Yet he created stunning works of beauty during some of his lowest points, including Irises, which is here, in full bloom.

Scenes from "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dali Museum include his beloved painting "Irises."
Scenes from "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dali Museum include his beloved painting "Irises." [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

A particular effect — no spoilers — featuring Wheat Field with Crows, a painting van Gogh created just nine days before he committed suicide, creates a sobering moment.

Vincent van Gogh's "Wheat Field with Crows" is part of "Van Gogh Alive," opening at the Dali Museum Nov. 21, 2020.
Vincent van Gogh's "Wheat Field with Crows" is part of "Van Gogh Alive," opening at the Dali Museum Nov. 21, 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Stay for the duration of the presentation. And later, use the Dalí Museum app for more information on some of the works. You’ll find a contemplative experience that reintroduces van Gogh’s genius, thereby keeping his spirit very much, as the title says, alive.

If you go

“Van Gogh Alive” opens Nov. 21 and runs through April 11, 2021. Masks are required at all times and social distancing and cleaning measures have been implemented. Attendance has been reduced to 50 percent capacity. and Tickets are sold out for the first week. Tickets are timed and must be purchased in advance: $25, $23 seniors/military/police/firefighters/educators, $18 students/kids 13-17, $10 kids age 6-12, free for children 5 and younger. After 5 p.m. Thursdays, $12, $8 kids 6-12. The museum is open 10 a.m. 6 p.m. daily, with the exception of Thursdays and Fridays, when the museum is open from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. 1 Dalí Blvd. (Bayshore Drive and Fifth Avenue SE), St. Petersburg. (727) 823-3767. thedali.org.

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