Tim Van Schmidt
It may be a little hard to do — taking some of the advice at the entrance of the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit currently showing in Denver at The Lighthouse.
Greeting patrons as they go in are some tips for enjoying the show and one reads: “Breathe Out, Dive In, and Enjoy.”
After leaving Fort Collins early and plowing along on I25 in the busy morning traffic, parking and figuring out exactly where this thing is happening, you could easily be caught up in the blur of contemporary living.
But let all of that go. When you enter the show, happening on the walls of two huge ballrooms in a former hotel, find a bench and do just what they say — breathe out and let an ever-shifting montage of a great artist’s colorful work become everything.
I have seen quite a few Vincent van Gogh paintings up close over the years. It has been my habit to visit art museums every place I have traveled to including Oslo, Leningrad, Moscow, Vienna, Berlin, and Mexico City plus US cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and more — there are van Gogh paintings all over the world.
In London, I saw “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery — the paint was so thick; it truly popped off of the canvas. I saw one of the famous self-portraits with the bandaged ear at the Courtauld Institute and at the Tate Gallery I saw “The Chair and the Pipe” and marveled at how a painting of a simple piece of furniture could be so vibrant.
But both of my most memorable encounters with van Gogh’s work happened in New York City museums.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was stopped in my tracks by a van Gogh self-portrait that had particularly penetrating eyes. As I shifted my viewpoint, the eyes seemed to follow mine.
Also at the Met I got to see one of my favorites, titled “First Steps”. It is his most hopeful and heartwarming work, depicting a father with outstretched arms, beckoning to a small child, supported by her mother, who is ready to try walking for the first time.
At the Museum of Modern Art, I was able to see the famous “Starry Night” painting — not a huge piece size-wise, but one of van Gogh’s most famous works. If you look at it long enough, without being jostled by a crowd that is, the stars actually seem to start spinning in the sky.
But this Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit is a whole different animal. It’s not an exhibit of van Gogh’s work as such, but rather uses his colorful imagery as a jumping-off point for an engrossing multi-media experience.
The whole thing is on a timed loop — supported by a moody instrumental soundtrack — that continually plays. Patrons are encouraged to stay as long as they like.
You can sit on one of the many benches strewn throughout the ballrooms, comfortably spaced for social distancing concerns, or move through the “galleries” like the imagery around you, constantly morphing and changing. All of it is tied together by the distinctive vision of the great artist who died 131 years ago.
I thought, as I was in the middle of it — what would van Gogh think of this? Honestly, van Gogh probably wouldn’t be there at all — he’d most likely be up painting Red Rocks or something. He most certainly would have found the gift shop curious, with all the different ways there are now for selling little bits of his art.
But I suspect that if the artist saw the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, I think it would strike him as being something like his dreams. If his paintings are only snapshots of what the artist had spinning around in his head, then his dreams must have been a colorful swirl of shapes and textures, like the exhibit.
The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit is a progressive art experience that is worth the effort to attend — if you are able to “breathe out” and “dive in”. What it isn’t is a linear retrospective of van Gogh’s art.
The exhibit here is only one in a series happening in several other cities throughout the country. Apparently, it has been very successful because there is already a follow-up event on the way to Denver in March 2022: an immersive Frida Kahlo exhibit.
Vincent van Gogh could hardly have conceived of this immersive exhibit. The technology would have been mind-boggling — I’d guess that he’d rather just paint.
But given a chance, I think he would have found it very fulfilling.
His paintings are vibrant with bold hues, motion etched into the canvasses with strong lines and curves, and his works are imbued with a sense of time and space only an outlier creative mind could create.
So many years later, van Gogh would be amazed to know that he has inspired a new kind of experience, bursting with those dreams he once had.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Check out his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”