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Paris: Stepping into the world of Van Gogh

Mantle visits L’Atelier des Lumières to experience the artist’s work

In the western art world, Vincent Van Gogh is a contradictory figure: an artistic genius and a commercial failure; one of the most famous, yet one of the least understood. 

In his lifetime, Van Gogh created over 2,000 works of art, and sold a single piece. And at the same time, he suffered from breakdowns so severe that he was in and out of the hospital. He cut off part of his ear after an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. And he eventually took his own life by shooting himself in the chest at the age of 37. 

Van Gogh’s life remains enigmatic, much of it revealed through the hundreds of letters he sent to his brother, Theo. And while we cannot hope to understand it in full now, it’s possible to see part of it in an exhibit called Van Gogh, Starry Night, which is currently running at the L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris.

Van Gogh, Starry Night, is a multimedia exhibit at L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris

In this multimedia exhibit, Van Gogh’s most famous paintings are projected into the walls, partly animated and accompanied by music. 

Having read about it before flying to Paris, I knew it was going to be something. But, walking into the gallery, I wasn’t prepared for how massive it would be. 

L’Atelier des Lumières is spacious, more the size of a small warehouse than a gallery. On the ground floor, groups of people take their place on the benches, or on the floor, or near the railing to peer at the display on an open area below the floor. At the far end of the gallery, there’s a staircase that leads to a large balcony above, and some of the visitors are already filling up the space. 

The lights begin to dim. Then the music begins to play and the entire gallery comes to life. All over the walls, Van Gogh’s paintings move in time with the music, projected from above. 

It’s difficult to describe. How they call it on the site is a “new visual and musical production [that] retraces the intense life of the artist, who, during the last ten years of his life, painted more than 2,000 pictures, which are now in collections around the world.” And on that end, it isn’t far from the mark. 

The digital display takes you through the different points of van Gogh’s life through his art. From when he was young to his later years. From when he was traveling and living in places like Neunen, Arles, Paris, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and Auvers-sur-Oise.

The paintings, they’re projected in a way that brings you in, that invites you to step into the world that birthed them. Given a sense of movement, the details pop into life. You see the sadness in his eyes in his self-portrait. You see how accurately he captured the arched backs of farmers in the field. You see the sunflowers as they are, how they must have been when they were alive. And, most of all you see one of his most famous paintings, “Starry Night” as a real evening, as something he must have seen once and captured in a moment that will never happen again.

It is a look into a world that is both chaotic and serene, both beautiful and eerie. Like Van Gogh himself, the way he must have thought, what you see on the walls is difficult to comprehend. But what you can say for it is that it is not too difficult to feel. Given new dimensions with movement and sound, the exhibit draws you in and makes it easier to understand the emotions behind the art. And the one thing that’s hardest to do here, it’s hardest to leave.

By the time the display is over, I have very little to say, but everything to feel. I make my way out to the gallery’s shop, pick up a few things to remind me of the experience, and head back out to the street. Paris in the summer is bright, even in the hours right before the evening, and having just come from a tiny part of Van Gogh’s mind, I find that the sun is something I’m thankful for.

Images Courtesy of Culturespaces. Van Gogh, Starry Night is produced by Culturespaces. Created by Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto, and Massimiliano Siccard, with the musical collaboration of Luca Longobardi. The exhibit will run until December 31, 2019 at L’Atelier des Lumières.