Digital art immersions: Many variations of Van Gogh theme

Millions of us are surrounding ourselves, literally, with the works of Vincent Van Gogh this summer because of dynamic new technology that captivates both the average person and the art connoisseur.

One example is close to home. “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” an engrossing new exhibit in Milwaukee, sold more than 53,000 tickets before it opened.

The production is one of at least five globally that introduce the Dutch artist’s life and paintings with multimedia pizzazz. Digital technology means the show can go on at several cities simultaneously.

“It’s all about creating a bridge, an opportunity to experience art in a different way,” says “Beyond Van Gogh” curator Fanny Curtat, an art historian in Montreal.

What happens? A digital collage of gigantic still life paintings melts into a roomful of soulful portraits, then many harmonious groupings of flowers and landscapes.

The works seem to move in a three-dimensional setting. Boats bounce in turbulent waters. Clouds float. Eyes blink.

Talk about good timing: We are itching to move around and crave new entertainment after a pandemic year of abnormal isolation. Timed ticket entries mean lots of elbow room in an already spacious exhibit hall at the downtown Wisconsin Center.

Gone is the stuffy, old-school shuffling from one gallery to another – the overcrowding at masterpieces and strained attempts to look cultured while eyeing artwork from multiple angles.

New is the humanizing of the person behind the paintbrush and the blend of music with art as it digitally morphs from one slice of long-ago life to another. More than 300 of Van Gogh’s works are incorporated into the hourlong experience.

Curtat says a “Beyond Van Gogh” goal was to let the beauty and genius of Van Gogh’s work shine beyond the notorious madness of his life.

Excerpts from the artist’s letters to brother Theo are part of a poignant introduction that precedes the massive, floor-to-ceiling art immersion that is accompanied by an eclectic mix of classical, pop and jazz.

“While many paintings are presented in all their simplicity, others have been enhanced, expanded, enlarged and juxtaposed to fill the space with life, texture and color,” a press release explains.

The story of Van Gogh – a preacher’s son who struggled mightily to find his own calling in life – is a tragic one. He spent much of life in an asylum and sold only one of the estimated 900 paintings created in 10 years.

“Through my work I’d like to show what there is in the heart of such an oddity, such a nobody,” he wrote in 1882, eight years before he shot himself to death at age 37.

The lone work that Van Gogh sold, for a meager price, was not the well-known “Starry Night” (which he created while recovering from a nervous breakdown).

“I plough on my canvas as they do in their fields,” the artist wrote long ago, and we see his depiction of farmland with grain shocks.

If only he would have known then about the impact he’d have on the art world now. What a sad but good reminder that no one knows the lasting impact one life will have on others.

“Beyond Van Gogh,” the work of Normal Studios in Montreal, stays at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee through Sept. 19. Entries are timed; a ticket is $37 (less for students, senior citizens and veterans). vangoghmilwaukee.com

At Germania Place in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood is “Immersive Van Gogh,” designed by Massimiliano Siccardi of France. Tickets start at $40. The show ends Nov. 28. The same show opens Aug. 2 at Lighthouse Minneapolis. vangoghchicago.com, vangoghmsp.com

“Van Gogh Alive,” the work of Grande Experiences in Australia, is open in Indianapolis, Denver, Adelaide and beyond. Stay tuned: The same company has created “blockbuster experiences” about Leonardo Da Vinci, Monet and Alice in Wonderland. grande-experiences.com

“Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” is open in several cities, Atlanta to Germany’s Berlin. It is a product of Exhibition Hub, based in Belgium. Shows in Beijing and Tel Aviv already have come and gone. vangoghexpo.com

“Imagine Van Gogh,” described online as the original (the setting was a quarry in France in 1977), has “no add-on, no antics” and is in Vancouver and Edmonton until early September. Then it heads to Tacoma and Boston. imagine-vangogh.com

What’s the difference in each production? “The curatorial angle,” Curtat explains. That includes the unique focus on music, light, color and movement.

“We’re combining traditional objects with cutting edge technology.”