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The immersive Vincent van Gogh painting craze is sweeping North America.

Editor’s Note: We give our arts critics the latitude to state their opinions of the work they review, and we know they must address many complex and sometimes controversial aspects of an artist’s choices; we also recognize that sensitivity must be exercised in describing them. While Voice of OC might take issue occasionally with the way our critics tackle such challenging subjects, we nevertheless grant them the autonomy to make those decisions. We believe the proper forum to debate them is in the comments section on our social media channels.

Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” just opened Tuesday in Anaheim at the Anaheim Convention Center, which had been shut down for more than a year due to COVID-19.

The same van Gogh show — produced by Normal Studio out of Montreal, Canada — is already open in Miami, Austin, Detroit, Honolulu and Milwaukee.

It’s opening this week in Ottawa and later this month in Calgary. It opens in Buffalo in August, St. Louis and San Jose in September, Salt Lake City in October and San Diego in January 2022.

In Los Angeles, another van Gogh show, “Immersive Van Gogh,” is playing inside the old Amoeba Records building in Hollywood. That same production has played in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas and Pittsburgh, to name just a few cities.

So what is “Beyond van Gogh”? It’s supposed to be an interactive experience, in which visitors (who pay the rather steep price) can walk into a large room where images of van Gogh’s paintings are projected onto walls, columns and the floor. There’s a dreamy, Cirque du Soleil-esque soundtrack that’s bathed in classical piano and accented occasionally with random voices, and the walls go dark, fill in, shift and transform into paintings by the Dutch master, who died by suicide in 1890 at age 37.

The show features more than 300 paintings, according to Fanny Cortat, a consultant and art historian hired by Normal Studio. Some of them are instantly recognizable, such as “The Starry Night” (1889), “Sunflowers” (1889), “Irises” (1889) and “Café Terrace at Night” (1888).

Others are not as well known, and one of the highlights of this show is to see many van Gogh works, at least in facsimile, that are rarely exhibited to the public. “Beyond van Gogh” features little-seen drawings, watercolors and of course, oil paintings, that typically would not be shown together, let alone alongside the popular masterworks. One drawback would be that viewers won’t get to focus on them for too long, as they rather quickly shift to other drawings, watercolors and paintings.

Also intriguing is the use of van Gogh’s own words, most of them derived from the artist’s voluminous letters to his brother, Theo van Gogh. There’s a room before the main hall that features more than a dozen excerpts from van Gogh’s letters, and they do seem to capture the artist’s spirit and his desire to share beauty and his vision with the world.

While I have not yet seen “Immersive van Gogh” in Los Angeles, consultant Cortat, who has seen its twin in Chicago, says the “Beyond van Gogh” show aims to go beyond the darkness of the struggling and tortured artist myth.

“When you actually look at his work, you see none of that darkness,” Cortat said during an onsite interview. “Going through his correspondence, it’s so clear that he had this craving for beauty, this purpose to share …. We focus more on the joy and the beauty from his works.” 

“Beyond van Gogh” does capture the variety and depth of color that the artist utilized in his paintings and portraits. It also simulates brushstrokes, quite literally with strokes of lighted “paint” moving across different paintings and surfaces at different times.

However, even though the show is three dimensional, it does not faithfully re-create the heavy impasto and layers of paint that van Gogh employed in so many of his works. These can only be truly seen with the naked eye in front of actual, genuine van Gogh paintings.

Another cool effect is the movement of light and color across walls and on the floor. This is perhaps most pronounced during, before and after the presentation of “The Starry Night,” when swirls of light zoom across a dark blue background and make the visitor feel like part of the movement. The same is done with flowers of various shade and iteration, although the effect is not quite as dramatic.

Visitors experience swirling lights and colors associated with Vincent van Gogh’s painting, “The Starry Night” (1889). Image from “Beyond Van Gogh” in Miami. Credit: Photo courtesy of Gayaman Visual Studio

One of the advantages of an in-person show like “Beyond van Gogh” is that it’s naturally a socially distanced experience, in this unpredictable era of COVID-19. Masks are required for unvaccinated folks, and timed tickets, which must be purchased in advance, help reduce congestion and capacity. Only about 200 people are allowed in the three-room attraction at once.

And like the museum experience, visitors don’t want to be too close to strangers visiting at the same time anyway. Also similar to the museum experience, there’s a gift shop at the end that will sell you anything from posters, T-shirts and coffee mugs to van Gogh-emblazoned journals, handbags, puzzles, bookmarks and face masks.

“Beyond van Gogh” is a pleasant, art-filled and air conditioned experience that’s a little light on explanation and history, yet heavy on sensory engagement.

‘Beyond van Gogh: The Immersive Experience’

When: Through Sept. 5; hours are 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; the visit takes about an hour and final entry occurs one hour before closing

Where: Anaheim Convention Center, 800 W. Katella Ave., Anaheim

Tickets: Start at $34.99 for adults and $24.99 for children

beyondvangoghoc.com

Is it worth the price? I would say no, as tickets start at $34.99 for adults and $24.99 for children, plus online ticketing fees. Prices vary depending on time of day and day of the week, and can rise as high as $46.99 for a basic adult timed entry on a Saturday afternoon, $63.99 for a premium flex ticket and $93.99 for the VIP package treatment, which includes priority access (unnecessary) and some merchandise. 

Plus, visitors should also factor in parking at the convention center, which costs $20 per vehicle.

If you’re really into Vincent van Gogh, how about renting or streaming a movie about the artist? There’s “Lust for Life” from 1956, starring Kirk Douglas as the struggling and passionate artist. He got an Academy Award nomination for that role.

“Vincent and Theo” from 1990 is another acclaimed film, directed by the late, great Robert Altman, that explores the brothers’ complex relationship. “Loving Vincent” from 2017 is the first fully painted animated feature flick.

Finally, “At Eternity’s Gate” from 2018 stars Willem Dafoe as the obsessed artist and explores the controversial theory that van Gogh died not by suicide, but by the mischief of two teenagers. Dafoe also got an Oscar nod for this performance.

Or how about buying a van Gogh book, or borrowing one from the library? That will definitely save you money, and provide hours of education and illustrations that don’t disappear or morph into other pictures before you’ve had a chance to concentrate.

Or for that matter, consider visiting the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena or the Getty Center in Brentwood to see the real thing. The Getty has van Gogh’s masterpiece “Irises” on permanent display. While you may need to make a reservation to enter and pay for parking, admission there is free.

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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