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‘Imagine Van Gogh’ doesn’t leave much to the imagination

Display at SoWa Power Station is one of five traveling immersive exhibitions of the Dutch artist’s greatest hits.

Visitors at "Imagine Van Gogh" at the SoWa Power Station.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

As someone who routinely takes 90-minute baths, I enjoy immersion. Like, a lot. So I was excited, if somewhat perplexed, by the idea of “Imagine Van Gogh,” a new show at SoWa Power Station described as an “immersive exhibition.”

I’ve been to a few museums — I had a very unfortunate New Wave haircut when I visited the actual Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1984 — but the “immersive” art experience is new, at least to me, and I had no idea what to expect.

Would I be swaddled by the thick brushstrokes of “The Starry Night”? Enveloped by the cozy “Bedroom in Arles”? The idea of being so engulfed by massive, high-def projections of Van Gogh’s most celebrated paintings that I might inhabit them sounded cool.


But before going, I did a little reading, and it turns out “Imagine Van Gogh” is just one of five immersive exhibitions of Van Gogh’s greatest hits now making their way around the world. Others include “Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience,” currently drawing big crowds at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre, “Van Gogh Alive: the Experience,” “Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit,” and “Beyond Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience.”

Visitors at "Imagine Van Gogh" at the SoWa Power Station. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

It won’t surprise you to learn that high-minded museum directors, many of them already struggling to get patrons to return amid the ongoing pandemic, aren’t thrilled with this art-as-entertainment trend. ”We’re keeping an eye on these shows,” Max Hollein, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the Wall Street Journal last week. They worry that dazzling digital spectacles could supplant the experience of simply standing before a framed masterpiece.

And judging from all the agog folks taking selfies in front of “Sunflowers,” “Irises,” and other digital repros the size of two-story houses, I can’t say I blame them. There’s a noisy, funhouse quality to “Imagine Van Gogh” that you don’t get in hushed, dimly-lit museum galleries.


“This definitely has the wow effect,” said graphic artist Anya Prudente, sitting on the floor at SoWa Power Station with her husband and four small children. “I mean, the scale is amazing.”

The show, which trumpets itself as the “original” immersive exhibition, was conceived in France in 2008 by Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron, who say they were inspired by the Cathédrale d’Images, a former limestone quarry in Provence that’s hosted audiovisual creations for more than three decades.

It’s clear the principal aim of “Imagine Van Gogh” is not to educate. Yes, the tragic contours of the Dutch artist’s biography are provided, but it feels perfunctory: Just a bit of background before the sensory bombardment begins. Nor is the show — which features 200 or so images — chronological or even, I’d argue, coherent. (Some of the accompanying music, for example, makes no sense: Bach and Mozart were long dead by the time Van Gogh was born in 1853.)

Instead, says Mauger, the goal of “Imagine Van Gogh” is to stimulate and astonish by presenting digital renderings of Van Gogh’s glorious paintings on a grand scale. The familiar images of swirling night skies, weary self-portraits, and blossoming fruit trees flash like giant screensavers on the walls and floor, cast by a grid of 57 projectors discreetly installed in the ceiling.

Wearing a mask as she wandered through the crowd this week, Mauger said the size of the show — “Imagine Van Gogh” occupies 24,000 square feet of SoWa Power Station — should make people feel comfortable about being indoors with others.


“This kind of exhibition, it is a cultural weapon against self-isolation and all of this COVID,” Mauger said in a thick French accent, adding that museums directors have no reason to feel threatened.

“I see so many people coming here to discover the painter, and then they go to the museum,” she said. “So I think it’s not in opposition. I think it’s a complement.”

Attendance will not be a problem, apparently. Demand for tickets already prompted “Van Gogh: the Immersive Experience” to extend its stay at the Strand through Feb. 20, while “Imagine Van Gogh” sold 80,000 tickets before the doors even opened — at $39.99 per! — enabling it to extend its run at the former power plant in the South End through March 19.

Still, not everyone is bowled over by these shows. Debra Cash, the executive director of Boston Dance Alliance, was at the opening of “Imagine Van Gogh” and couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

“People say young people don’t have the attention span,” Cash said. “But I’ve seen 14-year-olds sitting at the Museum of Fine Arts, with pad and paper, sketching an Ekua Holmes.

“This?” she said, motioning to the Bunyanesque “Irises” on every wall. “What is this? It’s not even trippy. If it was trippy, it’d at least be cool.”


Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.