Vincent van Gogh’s familiar nocturne, The Starry Night, hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and it doesn’t move. That is not to say it isn’t occasionally repositioned or even lent out for some international exhibition. It is only to observe the obvious: That its surface is static, like that of every other painting.
Apparently this is not good enough for some people. Starry Night would be more engaging, more accessible if only there were some actual motion in the swirls and spheres with which the artist merely suggested the movement of the heavens. And why not, while they’re at it, make the crows over his wheat fields flap their wings or let Claude Monet’s trains chug along the track.
At the core of the new mania for immersive art exhibitions is a basic betrayal of the art. The short-lived van Gogh (subject of at least two North American entertainments, one showing in Toronto, a different one now in Vancouver) just missed the development of film while the long-lived Monet (subject of an animated slide show produced in Toronto) could have seen the new “motion pictures.” And perhaps if they were both alive today they would be making multimedia art. But they aren’t and they didn’t.
What they did do was repeat art’s old magic trick of capturing three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface while newly suggesting fleeting effects of light, water and wind. And they did that in ways so captivating we should still be enthralled today … if we take the time to slowly look at their actual art, whether in a museum or in reproduction, rather than strutting about snapping selfies.
Certainly, we are not the first generation to use art shows as social occasions to see and be seen. The exhibitions of the art academy that Monet and his fellow Impressionists had rejected were a must for any 19th-century Parisian influencer. And many people have imagined they might walk into a van Gogh painting, most notably the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in his 1990 short Dreams. Meanwhile, contemporary artists are exploring media such as VR to create immersive art designed as such – with some interesting results.
But the new shows dedicated to historic artists have been denounced by art critics for cheesy effects and exploiting long-dead artists for commercial gain. (Images created by van Gogh and Monet are in the public domain but the producers do have to license the high-resolution reproductions they use.) The occasional commentator rounds on the snobs and suggests the shows are good fun. Others argue that they will lead a new generation to art.
The evidence there has always been mixed. Why should people who enjoy the symphony’s pop concerts develop an interest in Mahler? And, as programmers meet audiences where they’re at, the influence can go the other way. Consider the Queens of Egypt exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. There, rare artifacts are crowded and impressive stone sculptures upstaged by animated videos from the game developer Ubisoft. Who wants to scrutinize a three-millennia-old stone cat that would fit in the palm of your hand when you can ogle a life-size Egyptian priest praying in a spooky temple? The immersive shows might actually lead audiences away from museums since they imply the small and static originals are somehow deficient.
Of the two shows currently in Toronto, Immersive Van Gogh is the more sophisticated technically and thematically: It is a wordless emotional biography of the artist told through a 35-minute reel of giant animated projections of his paintings set to instrumental music. For all its populism, that spectacle now playing seven North American cities is oddly elitist: If you didn’t already know about van Gogh’s life, you would simply be bathed in pretty colours and sounds. Perhaps that is all ticket buyers want.
And the event, and the photo as evidence of attendance at the event. The Toronto production Beyond Monet begins in a room decorated with translucent scrims featuring fuzzy passages of paintings while a dozen text panels offer a solid summary of Monet’s achievements for those who can be bothered to do that much reading. But the real purpose here is surely the selfie sets: three versions of the Japanese bridge in Monet’s famed garden at Giverny set in pools of a reflective material.
That’s just an appetizer, however, for a 36-minute 360-degree slide show that tracks the artist’s career through his art, with animated effects whose initial cuteness – clouds blow through; a lady’s veil billows – gives way to insult as slices of a stormy sea roil about the screen in a frenzy or landscapes are enlarged beyond recognition.
That’s the other aspect of the art these entertainments betray: their human scale. And perhaps, aside from the sad spectacle of the Instagram influencers, that is what makes these shows so depressing as they enlarge painted figures once scaled to the viewer – van Gogh’s postman or Monet’s ladies in white dresses – to the size of fun-house clowns.
All paintings bear the singular marks of the artist’s hand. It’s almost heartbreaking to see the lit windows in van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, rendered with a flick of paint as small as his fingernail, enlarged to the size of a broomstick. And infuriating to see Monet’s brushstrokes disappear into a shifting, muddy blur. On screens the height of houses, art is ripped away from its deep connection to our bodies and our spirits. Immersive, perhaps. Alienating certainly.
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