I have just come back from visiting the Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience currently open on London’s Southbank behind the National Theatre. I have been a fan of Van Gogh’s art for years and have visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and last year (2019) I saw the Van Gogh in London exhibition at Tate Britain. I had seen some reviews of this travelling ‘Experience’ in various Arts news media and it has to be said that not all these reviews were favourable, this is why, when I found out it was coming to London I had to see for myself.
The first thing you need to know about this ‘experience’ (I shall continue to call it an Experience for reasons which will become clear later), is that it has been created by the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This is important because there is also a similar travelling show which is not “official”. Now that we are clear about the research provenance behind the show, let me tell you why I think it is one of the best art shows I have seen for a very long time.
The whole experience takes place in what is really a large and very posh marquee – a big tent pitched on the old car park at 99 Upper Ground behind the National Theatre on the Southbank in London. On entering you are given a headset and a small device which plays the recorded commentary. It is possible not to use these things, but in my view your whole enjoyment will be greatly impaired if you did not use them. Visitors are held in a small ante-space until the next full showing of the sound and vision commentary begins. The first room you enter has fields of grass and corn projected on the walls with the sound of a gentle breeze blowing through the grass, this gives way to a commentary about Vincent VG from diaries kept by his sister-in-law, who was largely responsible for his art being kept together after his death, with family photos replacing the cornfields. Some diary extracts from Vincent’s own letter to his brother Theo are heard and the family photos are replaced by the cornfields again this time a sudden flock of crows burst forth from the hidden depths up into the sky while the photographic landscape morphs into the famous Van Gogh painting “Wheatfield with Crows”. It is a very moving moment.
Following on through the exhibition space the visitor is confronted by a café style area with objects and diary extracts on the tables, all of which can be touched and interacted with in different ways. Throughout the whole experience there are drawing stations for visitors to pick up pencils and try their hand at drawing like the great man, looking at landscapes projected on the walls or looking through a replica viewfinder device as used by VVG to help with composition and perspective. Touch screens offer more information about his work and life, while each ‘room’ offers up commentary on a loop that links to the video projections on the walls exploring different periods of his life.
My favourite of these themed rooms is the shadow scenes where Vincent is in heated discussion with Cezanne at the Yellow House in Arles. This marks the most significant turning point of his mental decline and a beautifully crafted installation piece featuring sunflowers, easels and chairs is enough to bring a tear to the eye.
Throughout the whole experience there are many video sequences that ‘recreate’ some of Vincent’s paintings. In addition to this, there are several actual size reproductions of VG paintings displayed on easels. These have been recreated using the most up-to-date technology – 3D printing! The best bit about these paintings is that not only are they faithfully reproduced, but visitors are encourages to TOUCH them! Being able to touch a Van Gogh (even if it is a 3D printed copy) is an almost religious experience, bringing to life the depth of the paint and the intensity of the brushstrokes as laid down on the canvas.
Obviously, there will be many people who won’t like or even begin to understand this Exhibition Experience, and disappointingly some of those will be arts and museum professionals. For me, it is probably one of the best things I have seen recently. The audio narration is pitched at a level that is accessible to most people, without being overly complex or trying to push a particular curatorial idea. There is also enough interactivity for both adults and children, again pitched at a level where most people can engage with it. I did see that some visitors had commented on the Exhibition social media site that there had been issues with the audio soundtrack, when I visited today, I had no such problems, and everything worked very well. If I had one niggle, it would be that 6 unisex toilets are not enough for the potentially large quantities of people likely to visit, but realistically toilet facilities are often an issue at many heritage attractions.
If I lived in London I would probably visit again before it closes, but sadly that is not likely to happen. I can only urge people who are interested in Van Gogh to take the time to visit. It is an interesting concept, and a brave one on the part of the Van Gogh Museum to invest so heavily in a touring Experience of this nature. It makes VG and his work more accessible to people who aren’t familiar with him and also for those who may not be able to travel to Holland to visit the museum. For me, having an interest in VVG and also having been to the VG Museum, it is the innovative use of technology to bring a collection out to a wider audience.
Meet Vincent Van Gogh (created by the Van Gogh Museum) is at 99 Upper Ground on London’s Southbank (behind the National Theatre) from 7th February to 21st May 2020.