The general manager of a major interactive touring exhibition about the life and world of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has told that the exhibit is as much about getting to know the artist as the artwork, after it opened for a four-month run in London.
The Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience, which had its first international outing in Beijing in 2016, is the only official touring exhibit from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and is being staged on London’s South Bank, in association with Golden Tours.
It does not feature any original artworks by the painter who died in 1890, aged just 37, and who famously sold just one painting during his lifetime, but instead uses digital and immersive technology, including Chinese language explanation tags, to take visitors on a sensory journey through the life and creative process of the man who has become one of the most admired and analyzed artists of the modern era.
“We use presentation techniques that are used by natural history and science museums but not so much in the world of art,” Arnold van de Water said.
“The exhibition is not centered around the art itself but more around the astonishing life story of the man who created it, you learn more about the man who became the artist.
“Vincent’s story is one we have been publicizing in books and at the museum for years, so this experience tells it in a different way, which is maybe more accessible to larger groups who prefer to get acquainted this way.”
One of the things that sets Van Gogh apart from so many other artists is that his words are almost as important as his pictures, and the insight that gives into his creative process. “His letters are amazing,” said van de Water, “because 130 years ago, long before WhatsApp or email, he used to write multiple letters, on a daily basis, to his brother and other people, often when he was creating a piece of art. By checking the dates, we can know exactly what he was thinking about the day he did specific paintings.”
The experience is divided into six chapters, covering all aspects of Van Gogh’s life, with life-sized recreations of some of his famous paintings, such as the Bedroom at Arles, and a full array of opportunities for visitors to interact with his work.
The lack of original artworks allows a uniquely hands-on experience, and in contrast to most artistic exhibitions, this one features signs saying” Please do touch”.
Museum Managing Director Adriaan Donszelmann says the motto of the exhibition is “experience, discover and try for yourself”, and added that it was consciously different to the experience of visiting the Amsterdam museum which houses a large collection of Van Gogh’s original works, drawing more than two million visitors last year.
“The museum focuses on the art, here we are focusing more on the man himself,” he said. “It’s not our direct intention to make it something other than going to the museum, but we know not all people can go to the museum, so for those who cannot or will not, it’s a way to get to him and his art in a different way.”
There are two identical versions of the experience, allowing it to operate in more than one location at once, and Meet Vincent van Gogh will be visiting several more as-yet-unnamed cities after London, as the worldwide fascination with Van Gogh, the artist and the individual, continues to grow.
“You would think there is nothing left to discover, but there are still new stories coming, or being told in a better way,” said van de Water. “A recently biography of Jo Bonger, his sister-in-law who promoted Vincent’s work after he died, gives a new insight into her life. That story has been around for a while but new research by the museum brings new stories to life.”
And in a time of increasing global division and factionalism, great art, and great artists, can be a unifying force.
“The beauty of art and culture is that it crosses borders,” said van de Water. “Van Gogh had a deep connection with Asian art and was very much inspired by it, in the way he used perspective and colors, so it’s very interesting that he’s now inspiring China and other countries in Asia.
“And although he was Dutch, he was a true European, one of the first free, individual travelers, who went round the Netherlands, then lived in London, and then France. He was an example to us all. I don’t think of him as a Dutch citizen, but a citizen of the world.”
The exhibition Meet Vincent van Gogh, goes on from Feb 7 to May 21 at London’s Upper Ground.