The most extensive collection of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in the world is currently in Amsterdam. The aptly named Van Gogh Museum houses more than 200 works by the illustrious painter, with rotating exhibitions and sidewalk chalk art of sunflowers leading up to the main doors. But while I managed to visit in 2016, going to that museum for most of us Seattleites requires a plane ticket, a place to stay, the cost of food and admission and coveted time off from work or school.
Many people want to see the masterpieces the art world has deemed the peak of the Western canon, such as those by Da Vinci, Picasso and Michelangelo or modern artists such as Rothko.
Art aficionados have traveled to Paris and raced through the Louvre, only to be confronted by the unexpectedly small “Mona Lisa” surrounded by a mob of other tourists who skipped past the other wings and exhibits to see her. The Seattle area has some stellar museums and galleries, but no one expects “Starry Night” to be lent to a local museum from New York City’s esteemed Museum of Modern Art; even if it did, the time slots quickly fill up for weekends and evenings, leaving the average person still stuck taking time off. When you do get to see these incredible pieces of art, the glass in front catches the glare of the overhead lights, and it is difficult to get close with the crowd of people.
These museums and paintings are accessible, provided you have the money and means. But what about everyone else?
The designer of “Imagine Van Gogh” (not to be confused with the other Van Gogh event by Fever), sought to remove some of the barriers to Van Gogh’s masterpieces. There is no glass separating the art from the surveyor and no tiny, underwhelming paintings kept at arm’s length.
The Tacoma Armory lends itself well to the exhibit. The building lacks the sort of pretentiousness usually associated with the art world, whether that stereotype is deserved or not. There is street parking, and it blends in well with the rest of the area. According to Julien Baron, who worked on direction and creation, it was crucial that “Imagine Van Gogh” take place in a historic building in each community that features the exhibit; staff adjust the standing panels and setup for every space “Imagine Van Gogh” is in.
You first walk through a small, dark entry room that serves as an introduction to Vincent Van Gogh. Hanging boards are illuminated and contain text about Van Gogh’s life, upbringing and inspirations. Designers maintained consistent aesthetics as the space flows into the large, open room where the main experience begins.
After the introduction, Bach’s famous Suite no. 1 in G Major, performed on the cello, changes the atmosphere, beginning the presentation of Van Gogh’s art. The large screens displaying the art — some static, some slowly panning — give the observer a chance to see the rich texture of the paint and brush strokes. It brings a sort of humanity when you can see exactly what amount of pressure Van Gogh applied to the canvas centuries ago.
Using digital mapping and projection, “Imagine Van Gogh” takes the viewer through more than 200 paintings, letters and photos to give a larger portrait of the art and the artist himself. Standing in the large room of the Tacoma Armory, the striking sound of French composer Saint-Saëns fills your ears as self-portraits of Van Gogh light up the giant screens, as well as a floating obelisk-like structure in the middle of the room. This structure was inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e, also an inspiration for the master painter himself.
Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” is particularly striking. The bright, vibrant colors fill the entire space in yellows, oranges and soft light. The sunflowers are larger-than-life; each petal is at least the size of an arm, and there’s no detail missed. The paintings still manage to look three-dimensional rather than like a flat picture of a painting thanks to their size. In a sense, the audience finds themselves in a field of sunflowers for a brief moment. It feels like being surrounded by Van Gogh’s love of art, and it makes me appreciate the original painting even more.
“Imagine Van Gogh” is a great exhibit for the era we live in. The creative use of music and lighting makes it easy to focus on the art. Pastoral music sets the scene as Van Gogh’s gorgeous landscapes of the countryside are displayed on the larger-than-life screens before the audience, and the textured paint patterns on the floor look real enough to make you want to bend down and touch them. The presentation as a whole gives the art context and depth.
The exhibit doesn’t require that you put your phones away and treat art like some secret. Signs openly encourage you to take pictures and tag the building. Taking pictures of art is no longer taboo in the year 2022, and it’s pretty tempting to take a selfie when the room shifts to a vibrant blue from floor to ceiling.
“Imagine Van Gogh” brings a celebrated artist to the people. It still requires a ticket and navigating Tacoma traffic, but it’s much more accessible than Amsterdam. The exhibit’s team of 20 people is focused on the experience of the audience, once you strip art from the confines of the canvas.
Some social media critics may argue that it’s a disservice to physical art. However, I see no difference between this presentation and using e-books and listening to audio dramas. It is simply a new way to consume art and reach as many people as possible. That is what I ultimately believe can bring the most joy in these times. Art is for everyone, well-traveled or not. Free from frames, “Imagine Van Gogh” allows the art to bleed into “real life” and surround us.
“Imagine Van Gogh” is on display at the Tacoma Armory through April 16. Individual tickets are available for $36–$51.
Leinani Lucas is an Indigenous and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the Mar. 16-22, 2022 issue.