During his short and troubled life, Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh struggled for years to translate the colors, beauty and motion he saw in his head on to canvas.
As the world knows now, Van Gogh found that creative breakthrough in the final two years of his life, when he moved to Southern France and exploded with colorful creativity, sometimes turning out a new painting every day. Although Van Gogh sold only one painting before his death at age 37 in 1890, today he is the world’s most popular artist, and several of his paintings have sold for more than $100 million apiece.
So it’s no surprise that Van Gogh’s mass-appeal, instantly recognizable paintings are the subject of a new immersive touring exhibition now on exhibit the Del Mar Fairgrounds. But what is special about “Beyond Van Gogh,” which opened Fridayand runs through March 6, is how its use of projection mapping, digital animation, music and visual storytelling allows the visitor to experience the world through the artist’s eyes.
Van Gogh’s paintings — more than 300 are featured in the walk-through exhibit — are unbound from their small frames, blown up enormously to wall size in the large Wyland exhibition hall. Many paintings are digitally animated to show the swirling cosmos, wind-blown tree blossoms, waving wheat fields and scudding clouds that Van Gogh rushed to capture on canvas with his choppy brush strokes and thick dabs of contrasting oil paints.
Created in 2020 by Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio, the exhibit features 500,000 square feet of visual projections and 60,000 frames of video. It also has a recorded symphonic score that includes an instrumental version of Don McLean’s 1971 ode to the painter, “Vincent.”
The exhibit is spread through three rooms. It begins with a walk-through section of written panels that tell the story of Europe’s late 19th-century art world, Van Gogh’s life and his close relationships with is brother Theo, a Paris art dealer who supported Vincent throughout his adult life. Many of the panels include snippets from the thousands of letters the brothers exchanged, including Van Gogh’s desperate desire to express his feelings through art.
Fanny Curtat, a Montreal-based art historian for “Beyond Van Gogh,” said that in Van Gogh’s final years, he was finally beginning to generate a buzz in the art world, but his death, followed by his brother’s death six months later, kept his work in obscurity for many years. Curtat said that most people remember Van Gogh for cutting off his ear and killing himself during bouts with mental illness, but the focus of “Beyond Van Gogh” is on the artist’s painting process and his genius.
The exhibit’s second room, called the “waterfall room,” is mapped with cascading flows of digital dots that show visitors how Normal Studios animators re-created Van Gogh’s swirling brush strokes and how he paired dissimilar colors to create a three-dimensional effect. The final room has Van Gogh’s paintings digitally mapped on the floors and walls and on panels placed throughout the room.
On a 35-minute loop, the film begins with Vincent’s darker and more bleak paintings from his time in the Netherlands and progress to landscapes, still lifes and self-portraits from his productive years in Paris, the Southern French town of Arles and the Northern Paris community of Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died. Through animation, tree limbs grow across the floor and walls, petals blow across the walls, starlight sparkles and swirls, flowers grow out of their canvases and paint drips from the ceiling.
Curtat said most visitors spend about an hour in the exhibition, though reading all the panels and sitting through the 35-minute film twice will add a lot more insight about the man and his art. I found the exhibit visually stunning and also emotionally moving because it allows visitors to see the world the way Van Gogh saw it — in all its colorful glory.
“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience”
When: Timed ticket entry every 15 minutes, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays. 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. Final entry one hour before close. Runs through March 6.
Where: Wyland Center at Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar.
Tickets start at: $36.99 for adults. $23.99 for children, plus ticketing fees.