Maybe you’ve dreamed of standing inside a roomful of Van Goghs, but could never in a million years afford round-trip tickets to Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh Museum.
Maybe you’ve always assumed museums are for the monied or the studied. Or maybe you don’t know Van Gogh, so why bother?
“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” open now through July 8 at the Rhode Island Convention Center, is for you, says Fanny Curtat, the art history consultant for the production.
“The saddest thing about art is that it’s considered too elitist. But what art brings to people, that’s universal,” said Curtat, 36, a PhD candidate at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Immersive art experiences “have the possibility of providing a wide-access for an audience who might think [art] isn’t for them. It’s never going to replace a museum. It’s about providing a different access point.”
“You don’t need to know anything about Van Gogh to go,” she added. “Quite the opposite. It’s a great way of discovering him.”
“Beyond Van Gogh” uses “cutting-edge projection technology and an original score” to showcase some 300 of Van Gogh’s artworks sprawled over 30,000 square feet. The traveling show, created by French-Canadian creative director Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at the Montreal-based Normal Studio, has sold nearly 3 million tickets worldwide, Curtat said.
Curtat spoke to the Globe recently about the production.
Q: How did you get involved with this project?
Curtat: Normal Studio started looking around for an art historian because this project is really a conversation between these cutting-edge projection tools and more traditional objects. I was hired in October 2020, the show launched in spring 2021.
I was really curious as to what their angle was and how they wanted to go about it. We quickly realized we were on the same page: to take advantage of these tools, of the fact that this isn’t a conventional museum exhibit, but also stay true to the work itself.
What was your role?
My role was to help figure out what way could Van Gogh’s story relate to a 21st century audience, which pieces to choose. We knew some were unavoidable — it would be almost cruel to not include “The Starry Night” or “Sunflowers.” But then in what order do we put them? How do we make sense of his journey?
We have an incredible opportunity — usually museums have to deal and barter to get some pieces. It’s hard to have a Van Gogh travel because they’re so expensive, insurance is so expensive. So in a way we were very lucky. While we don’t have the aura, the pure magic, of an original, we do have the possibility of choosing pretty much any painting. He did over 850, and when you add all the watercolors, sketches, drawings, you get close to 2,000 pieces.
So how did you go about curating?
There’s sort of an easy trajectory into his work. When he first started, in the Netherlands, his work is much darker — darker tones, darker shades. Then he gets to Paris and meets the impressionists, and all of the sudden everything gets brighter. Then he gets to the South of France and you have these wonderful colors, incredible movements of the brush, the intensity, the texture of it. So it’s really following this evolution from darkness to explosion of color. So that’s the way we went about this show, to follow the natural evolution.
How did you select what to use from his letters?
That was very difficult. [laughs] There’s a lot. It was about finding what resonates with modern-day sensibilities. Sometimes it’s about choosing a quote that goes along with a certain theme; sometimes the words are meant to provide depth into his paintings, sometimes it’s about providing depth into who he was, how he saw the world, how he saw himself. Again, not this mad genius in the corner of the room, ostracized. That’s not who he was. It’s unfair to have his whole life reduced to the lowest point in his life, which he acknowledged and was so lucid about.
You’re right that the pop culture image of Van Gogh is the pain, the ear, the asylum. So who was the real Vincent as you see him?
Well, there is a part of that that’s undeniably true. He did suffer. We can’t take away his suffering, but we can add complexity to it. Same with [his work’s] recognition. There’s this stigma around him — and it’s true — that he wasn’t making a living from painting. But he died at 37, and was already gaining traction. Had he lived as long as Monet, he [could] have been just as wealthy and popular.
What do you want Rhode Island viewers to get out of this experience?
For people who are intimidated by museums — and art can be intimidating — I’d love for them to not feel that way. To feel that they have keys, context, and by that last room, to have developed a connection with Van Gogh. Maybe they’ll be curious to see an original. There’s nothing like it. It’s about providing different ways of experiencing art, bridging different audiences who maybe think it’s not for them, and involving them in the art world.
For people who already know Van Gogh, it’s the fantasy of going inside the work you love.
Have you always been into Van Gogh?
It’s funny because before this project, I’d learned about him, of course, but more on the theoretical point of view. Getting into this project, I got to reconnect with the biographical. When you go into the life story, that’s where you connect emotionally. I understand why every art historian who ends up specializing in Van Gogh ends up teary-eyed during a conference. It’s just so raw.
Have you worked on other immersives?
[Our team] worked on “Beyond Monet” that opened in Toronto in August 2021 [now in Ottawa.] We’re in the works with National Geographic about King Tut. The sky’s the limit with these types of devices. It’s an incredible reach these projects can have. But it’s never meant to be a replacement for a museum experience.
Where do you see these immersive experiences having a place in the art world?
I wouldn’t ask anything else from the art world than to question every single development. We don’t truly know what they’ll do to our experience of art. We don’t truly know what Instagram or social media does to the way we experience art. We’re too close to fully appreciate what it will do.
Immersive experiences have been around for almost a decade, and they’re not going anywhere — if anything, they’re growing. So considering that the change is here, we might as well see what it can do in terms of connecting audiences.
This interview has been edited and condensed.