van Gogh Alive @ MediaCityUK

 van Gogh Alive @ MediaCityUK

When it comes to art – to painting – the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have always resonated with me. Spanning about half a century between them, to me these two art movements encompass everything that art is and should always aspire to be. 

When viewing an Impressionist style painting, we are shown something real – a portrait, a landscape, a still life – but we do not see it for how it truly is, how it would be if we were looking at the subject ourselves; instead we see it through the eye of the artist, how they feel about the subject at the time of painting it. We are shown their impression. Capturing this, the essence of a subject rather than its objective form, was mainly achieved by using vivid colours and thick brush strokes that were applied quickly to produce texture (called impasto), among other things. 

Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul.

Vincent van Gogh

And isn’t this the true meaning of art? Not to show us exactly how things are – we could look at a photograph or watch the news (to an extent, depending on the outlet) for that – but to help us understand how things feel, how they aren’t quite as they seem, or how they can be better (or worse). Your favourite film or TV series, your favourite novel or poem, your favourite video game, piece of music – don’t they all represent something greater than the sum of their parts? They reach us on a level that is both erringly human and unerringly infinite. In other words, they move us to better understand ourselves and the world around us while also giving us a truer sense of that which is greater than us – the unknown; the unknowable yet emotionally reachable, through art. 

Art at its best, regardless of medium, transcends this earthly plane and this mortal coil, and takes us along for the ride, whilst paradoxically keeping our feet more firmly on the ground than ever before. I suppose that’s the best way to describe art, great art: a paradox. Just like Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. We see trees yet they aren’t true trees; they are representations of hope, of freedom. Or of strength and fortitude. Or whatever. It depends on the painting and the artist.

The Starry Night (1889) by Vincent van Gogh

Okay, Okay… We Get It

Okay, fine. Discourse over. Let’s now focus on one man and his legacy – indeed, his legend. Vincent van Gogh. Arguably the greatest Post-Impressionist to ever live (although, ironically, no one realised that until after he died), and my favourite painter. 

As you can surely tell by now, I am biased. I’ve been to the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam twice; I’ve read multiple biographies of the tortured genius; and I have my all-time favourite painting, The Starry Night, printed on a canvas on my living room wall, and on my bag, and on my most precious notebook. So you’re reading the words of a fanboy – not just of art in general, or of Post-Impressionism, but of van Gogh himself. Keep that in mind as we go forward. 

I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.

Vincent van Gogh

We all have different specific tastes, even if we generally like the same things. For example, you may love the Impressionist movements but prefer Claude Monet or Paul Signac over Vincent van Gogh. Each to their own. But I’m assuming, seeing as you’ve read this far, that you have at least some small interest in or appreciation for van Gogh. So our tastes can’t vary too much, can they?

I will also aim to take into account the opinions of those people we drag along with us to these exhibitions (or in this case, this ‘experience’). It helps that I took my girlfriend with me, as although she appreciates art to a certain extent, she prefers Realism to Impressionism. So van Gogh isn’t exactly her style. In fact, after seeing the majority of his works during the experience, she concluded that her favourite was actually his painting of a stuffed bat – probably the closest to Realism he ever got.

Flying Fox (1886) by Vincent van Gogh

Can We Hear About the Experience Already?

Right, sorry. About the experience. Many of you will have heard of – or perhaps already attended – van Gogh Alive, which is currently situated on The Piazza at MediaCityUK in Salford Quays. And if you’ve been meaning to check it out but haven’t got around to it yet, you’ll be glad to know the run has been extended by over a month, until February 27th, due to overwhelming popular demand. Just make sure you don’t wait too long to book your tickets!

Walking into the experience, you encounter the ‘interpretative area’, which is similar to what you’d expect to see at your average art gallery – except without any actual pieces of art. There are images of some of van Gogh’s most iconic paintings, along with information about his life, mental state and artistic process at the time of painting each. Some of the images are also accompanied by one of van Gogh’s many famous quotes, which were found in over 800 surviving letters that he wrote during his life.

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?

Vincent van Gogh

What makes this first room more unique than the common gallery is a life-sized walk-in version of van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. Here you can literally step inside a painting and get that perfect Instagrammable moment.

Moving onto the next section of the experience, you pass a looped documentary-style video (which can be found on YouTube) about a husband and wife artist duo – Rob and Nicky Carter – who used robotics to recreate one of van Gogh’s most iconic (series of) paintings: Sunflowers. One of six identical robotic recreations is actually hanging beside the video for everyone to compare and admire.

The way to know life is to love many things.

Vincent van Gogh

Then, walking through a frustratingly dimly lit hallway covered in Starry Night (a second Instagrammable moment poorly squandered), you find yourself in the ‘SENSORY4™ Gallery’. This is where the magic happens. You find yourself in the midst of a fully immersive experience where over 3000 images, which include the artist’s various works and quotes, are displayed on the walls, columns, ceilings and floors. The vivid display is accompanied by an evocative classical score that even includes my personal favourite piano composition – Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 1”.

Wheatfield with Crows (1890) by Vincent van Gogh

The experience consists of a number of ‘movements’, beginning with a series of self-portraits that reflect van Gogh’s ever-changing emotional states through their varying styles and tones. After this, the movements occur as a chronological story, taking you on a journey of the troubled yet nuanced artist’s life. 

The journey begins with van Gogh as an emerging artist in the Netherlands; through Paris, where he discovered his peers and influences and developed his craft; on to Arles, where he reached the height of happiness and productivity before suffering a decline in mental health; then to Saint-Rémy, where the most tumultuous time of his life resulted in hallucinations and suicide attempts, and yet also his most serene, hopeful works to date (including The Starry Night); and finally, his last stop at Auvers-sur-Oise, where he was drawn to wide, empty landscapes – such as that depicted in one of his final works, Wheatfield with Crows, which signifies the impending doom that soon came when he shot himself, dying two days later.

What particularly stands out during the experience is when some of the paintings are brought to life using motion graphics and digital surround sound. We see smoke rise, clouds swirl, crows fly; we hear the chatter of café customers, the flow of the river, and most impactful of all, the cawing of the crows drowned out by a gunshot. One of my highlights was watching as a steam train travelled around the room, passing from screen to screen, and hearing it puffing as it rolled over the hand-drawn tracks.

I put my heart and soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.

Vincent van Gogh

Once you’ve fully experienced each movement in the ‘SENSORY4™ Gallery’, there is one final Instagrammable moment before it’s time to hit the gift shop: the immersive sunflower room. This small section of van Gogh Alive consists of a short pathway surrounded by hundreds of sunflowers. Sounds perfect, right? One problem: expect to end up in more than just your own selfie. With mirrored walls and a mirrored ceiling, there really is nowhere to hide!

Can We Get This Over With?

Of course. Yes. My conclusion. As a self-proclaimed van Gogh fanboy, I was in my absolute element. I’ve always felt, seeing his paintings up close, that he was somehow able to add a certain dynamism to his work that gives the viewer a clear sense of motion. And I’ve always had the impression that his paintings seem to be coming off the canvas as you watch – almost becoming three-dimensional. So to see his work in a medium where motion is added and dimensions are altered, it felt perfect – like this is exactly what van Gogh must’ve envisioned when he first touched brush to canvas. 

I can imagine him, as in a very emotional Doctor Who episode from my teens, seeing this for himself and bursting with joy and vindication. No doubt Vincent would be proud of the people at Grande Experiences for creating this.

But I promised to also look at it from the perspective of the person – i.e. my girlfriend – who has been dragged along despite not being entirely interested in van Gogh’s art. Well, luckily, although Post-Impressionism may not be her thing, there are two things she absolutely loves: music and history. And here she found both. As a piano player, she was able to fully appreciate the classical score, and how it was smoothly synced to the visuals; and as a history lover, she was encapsulated by the life of van Gogh, from his humble beginnings as an artist – after failing both as an art dealer and a pastor – to his final years, severing his ear after an altercation with Paul Gauguin, spending a year at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and eventually – tragically – committing suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise.

So overall, this is not simply your stereotypical visit to an art exhibition; it is an experience that satisfies your mind and your senses. As the official programme states, “a powerful and vibrant symphony of light, colour and sound compels you to leave the world behind…” And for a time, you definitely do – whether you’re as much of a fan of van Gogh as me or not. My only criticism is that I left wanting more – which, let’s face it, isn’t really a criticism at all.

Someday death will take us to another star.

Vincent van Gogh

And on that note, be sure to check out more of our ArtMuse articles, such as Morys Davies’ review on Loitering with Intent at The Modernist, or his conversation with Geoffrey Key.

That’s it until next time. If you’ve enjoyed this review, I’d greatly appreciate it if you could send me a tip on Ko-fi!

Luke Spiby

MancMuse co-founder, content writer and editor specialising in arts and events reviews. Luke writes screenplays, stage plays and novels between trips to the local; and he dabbles in copywriting and marketing to pay the bills. He also has experience directing and producing short films and theatre pieces, some of which have been in association with the Royal Exchange Theatre.

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