Starry Night on Screen: A Look into Portland’s Newest Art Exhibit

People observing the brushstrokes of a Van Gogh painting up close. This photo shows the scale and detail of the Beyond Van Gogh exhibit. Photo by Clara Johnk.

Artful swirls of blue evening sky, lit with white bulbs of light, are a familiar scene for many. We recognize the wispy strands of a cypress cutting across the falling night, and the town tucked into the hills below, as Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. While one can envision the motion in this evening scene from just the expression of the brushstrokes, what would happen if the painting were to truly come alive? What would it be like to have Van Gogh’s somber portrait blink back at you?

These were some of the questions that the French-Canadian creative director Mathieu St-Arnaud found the answer to when he created Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. Working with a team at Normal Studio, St-Arnaud designed an exhibit that reimagines the revered works of Vincent Van Gogh. By way of projection and animation on a massive scale, and the integration of sound, his art is given new life.

Van Gogh first attracted the attention of the team at Normal Studio with his ability to connect to people and elicit emotion through his work. “Vincent’s work speaks to every human being,” said St-Arnaud. “No matter what language you speak or what country you are from, you would most likely recognize his paintings: he painted emotions [that] we all understand [like a] universal language.” To Van Gogh, painting was a way to create joy and color, especially as his life grew darker and more difficult. St-Arnaud explained how he hoped to share this healing nature of Van Gogh’s art with a wider audience, knowing that today’s public is in dire need of such inspiration amid the struggles and anxiety of a pandemic. “Entertainment and art have been put on hold for good reason and it’s shown us how important [they are], vital even, as they bring emotions and perspective to our daily lives. When we understood that we could create this experience and make it safe, we just had to do so,” he stated.

Since its arrival at the Oregon Convention Center on November 19, 2021, many Portlanders have taken this golden opportunity to engage with a new interpretation of such beloved art. However, the exhibit is far from just a Rose City phenomenon. After kicking off in Miami, Florida in April 2021, installments began making their way across the major cities of the country, and to a few Canadian and South American locations as well. 

 Everywhere it goes, Beyond Van Gogh attracts big crowds for its “immersive experience.” That experience begins with a history of Van Gogh, told in brief blocks of text that are arranged into a snaking path to lead the viewer along. For those not familiar with the details of the artist’s life, it’s an enlightening look at some of his most impactful relationships over time, one of the most important of those being with his brother Theo. “1872 – Two Brothers,” begins one of the sections. “Unsure of his path[…] Van Gogh [and his] brother Theo both start working for the same art dealership, Theo in Brussels, Vincent in The Hague.” 

The text continues on to loosely follow his life and the evolution of his career until the 1890s, and what comes next is perhaps the biggest draw for people around the world. In the following room, viewers enter to see floor to ceiling projections covering the walls, surrounding them with vivid, up-close images of the people, nature, and landscapes of Van Gogh’s creation. Beyond a mellow soundtrack that includes instrumental arrangements of Simon & Garfunkel’s America, and Don McLean’s Vincent, the volume is no louder than a low murmur, the product of a collective awe among the crowds.

A variety of animations of the paintings slide across the walls in a roughly 45 minute cycle, and then the experience comes to an end. With a new understanding of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, and a fresh perspective on his art, viewers leave with much to reflect on. “[It’s] a moment of peace, stepping away from everyday life and taking the time to look at the emotions that are right in front of our eyes,” St-Arnaud said. “By going beyond the myth of the tortured artist, by stepping beyond the frame into Vincent’s world of color[…] we wanted to create an experience that would speak to everyone.” It’s safe to say that the exhibit succeeds at this goal. Whether viewers are deeply invested in Vincent Van Gogh’s work, or simply interested in experiencing the product of a creative idea and vision, Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience has something for everyone. 

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