In an 1882 letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh wrote about making "prints for the people" – that it would be "useful and needful" to make Dutch drawings available for "workers' dwellings, farmhouses … every working man." The masses.
With van Gogh's own work, this vision was realized – and then some. Reproductions of his works are ubiquitous – from gift-shop posters to greeting cards.
Now, state-of-the-art technology is being used to create a whole new level of van Gogh reproductions – to startling effect. And it is bringing the 19th-century artist's work to the 21st-century masses in a place where they congregate: the shopping mall.
Beginning on Wednesday, nine van Gogh "Relievos" – high-quality, textured reproductions, faithful right down to the frames – are on display and for sale in a darkened pop-up gallery erected in Vancouver's sparkly, upscale Oakridge Centre.
Created through a process that officials connected with the venture are calling "reliefography," the premium replicas have fooled at least one curator and provoked deep emotions and even tears from visitors, the officials say.
"It's very touching," says Willem van Gogh, Theo's great-great-grandson, who is an adviser to the board and an ambassador for Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. (The artist, who died at 37 in 1890, had no children.) "I am so proud. What is so special about Vincent van Gogh is that all over the world, his work appeals to so many people."
Using a patented process developed by Fujifilm Belgium, the Van Gogh Museum and Fuji created 3D reproductions of nine paintings – including The Bedroom (1888), Sunflowers (1889) and Almond Blossom (1890).
"When the first result came out, we were astounded. Because literally [with] the naked eye, you cannot see any difference." says Diederick van Eck, CEO of Tribute International, which is distributing the Van Gogh Museum Edition replicas. "They're so real."
In the museum's basement, the glass and frames protecting the works were removed ("then suddenly you are united with a virgin van Gogh, the way it was," Mr. van Eck says). Then a sort of cloth – very soft, says Mr. van Eck, who described it as feeling both like rubber and silk – was applied, taking in the relief of the original painting. After many hours of delicate work, a wide negative was produced. The original, unharmed, went back on the wall, and the cloth was sent to Fuji's laboratory in Belgium. Then, with the exact measurement of the relief, two colour matchers got to work, with the colours projected into the relief.
From this mould, 260 Relievos were produced using 3D printing – each inspected by a curator.
The process was repeated for the nine works.
One actual collector, who owns millions of dollars' worth of original art, bought the whole series and hung the Boulevard de Clichy (1887) Relievo in his home next to a real Monet. "He said some people might think that I have the real van Gogh," Mr. van Eck recalls. "And he said, 'If people ask me a question, I have a great story to tell.'"
The replicas, each part of a numbered and certified limited edition, are selling for $40,000 apiece.
Or you can pay $5 to tour through the small exhibition (which is free for people 10 and under). At Edmonton's Southgate Centre, the tour's other Canadian stop, nearly 17,000 people visited. People who are visually impaired are invited to touch the paintings.
Mr. van Gogh has been travelling with the exhibition. "He's like a rock star," Mr. van Eck says.
Funds raised will go in part to the maintenance of the original paintings in the museum, but the venture is also meant to make van Gogh's work more accessible, as the artist desired.
"Van Gogh … always wanted to bring his works to the masses, so now we can do it," Mr. van Eck says. "It's to fulfill the legacy of van Gogh into the world for the future."
The Van Gogh Museum Edition is at Oakridge in Vancouver until March 27.