Meet Vincent: New immersive 'Beyond Van Gogh' exhibit in Detroit goes beyond paintings

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

For a painter who died more than 130 years ago and sold very few paintings during his lifetime, impressionist Vincent van Gogh's career has never burned brighter.

Immersive Van Gogh exhibitions -- digital floor-to-ceiling displays that take visitors inside the Dutch painter's vibrant paintings -- are crisscrossing the globe from Paris to Miami.

And now the first of two highly anticipated immersive Van Gogh exhibitions arrives Friday at Detroit's TCF Center. 

"Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" will feature roughly 300 of Van Gogh's paintings, digitally projected onto the floors and walls to give visitors a unique perspective into the troubled painter's world. But it also goes beyond each painting's frame to imagine his world in a bigger way.

"Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" opens Friday at the TCF Center in Detroit.

"When we designed this, we wanted to offer the opportunity for the audience to go beyond Van Gogh to meet Vincent, but also to go beyond the frame, and beyond the image, and actually step inside Vincent's famous paintings," said Mathieu St-Arnaud, creative director of Normal Productions which created "Beyond Van Gogh." "That's really what we tried and I think that's what we accomplished."

The "Beyond Van Gogh" exhibition is new in the world of immersive Van Gogh experiences. It debuted in Miami an April, selling more than 100,000 tickets. It's run there has now been extended through mid-August.

The main gallery of "Beyond Van Gogh" uses 30 digital projectors together to create one blended image.

Another immersive exhibition, "Van Gogh Exhibit Detroit," which is billed as the "original" immersive experience, meanwhile, arrives this fall at an undisclosed location in Detroit. Presented by Lighthouse Productions, it's already traveled to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and dozens of other cities.

For "Beyond Van Gogh," St-Arnaud and his team at Normal Productions, based in Montreal, wanted to create an experience that "extends and expands" Van Gogh's work but also respecting it.

It was about "trying to come up with interesting ways to look at his work differently and rediscover it," said St-Arnaud. "Actually, the idea was to try to rediscover his work from a new perspective."

St-Arnaud said they were prohibited from changing the color of Van Gogh's paintings or the compositions of the paintings, especially the portraits.

"You cannot remove the background so the background and the actual subject, they're linked together. You cannot separate them. We made sure we tried to respect how he envisioned from his own paintings."

But they also extrapolated how the paintings would've looked beyond their frames. St-Arnaud uses Van Gogh's masterpiece, "Starry Night," as an example. It's one of several paintings that Van Gogh fans will recognize in the exhibition, including "Sunflowers" and 'Café Terrace at Night."

"Imagine there is a frame -- if you remove the frame, we actually extended the rest of the painting," said St-Arnaud. "We re-created it in the style of Van Gogh what he hasn't painted."

The exhibition is divided into three phases or areas: an educational area with facts on Van Gogh and details about the exhibit; an original creation inspired by Van Gogh; and a main gallery. At one point, visitors will step through a waterfall of color.

To bring the paintings to life, St-Arnaud said they use projectors and cutting-edge multimedia tools to turn different images into one "seamless" image. There are roughly 20 projectors in the main gallery alone. 

"Instead of being in front of a painting and looking at it, I'm actually walking inside it and it's all around me," said St. Arnaud. "I'm a character in Van Gogh's work."

St-Arnaud said what's interesting about Van Gogh's work is that it isn't very colorful at the beginning of his career but gets more vibrant with time, even as his life became more difficult.

"The more life got hard, the tougher it got, the bigger the brushstrokes. The colors create the perspective ," said St-Arnaud. "There’s a correlation -- whatever life threw at him, he replied back with more color.

Music, meanwhile, will also bring Van Gogh's work to life in "Beyond Van Gogh." Even though he lived in the 19th century, St-Arnaud said they didn't want to go that route. Instead, they turned to contemporary music, including Miles Davis.

"When you layer them together, something really happens," he said.

Van Gogh tragically took his own life in 1890, but his work still resonates to this day. 

"He painted with emotion and how he felt," he said. "We can still relate to that today."

'Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience'

Opens Friday through Aug. 15 at the TCF Center

Features more than 300 Van Gogh paintings, including "The Starry Night," "Sunflowers" and "Café Terrace at Night."

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