Review: Is multi-media blockbuster “experience” Van Gogh Alive really the future of appreciating the Old Masters?

Is this the future of touring blockbuster art exhibitions? That’s the question which springs to mind strolling the shimmering surfaces of Van Gogh Alive – the perplexing “multimedia exhibition experience” currently touring the world, while presenting precisely zero original works by the Dutch master often touted as the greatest painter who ever lived.

Instead, viewers inhabit an immersive space – walls, floor and ceiling alike dizzyingly splashed with swirling, cropped images of Van Gogh’s works, clumsily phased together like an early Windows screensaver. In total, 3,000 different images flicker from 40 projectors, revolving in a half-hour suite of biographical chapters, set to patronising mood music and punctuated with tortured quotes drawn from the great artist’s letters. The most haunting moments morph Van Gogh’s harrowed self-portraits eerily into one another – the same deadened, listless eyes glaring out at the viewer from all angles.

On the road since 2011, the tech feels distinctly tired, with stops already clocked in 35 cities on four continents. When I caught Van Gogh Alive in Lisbon last summer, silhouetted figures practised artful tai chi poses in front of the churning mass of pictures. I can only presume they were paid to do so – but remain uncertain, as any reaction to this bewildering “experience” was welcome: Hardened gallery goers paced the space with a studied scowl, while families sprawled out on beanbags – and at least three paying guests appeared to be taking a nap.

There is, of course, a wider argument to be had about art and appropriation. Fragmenting and gutting Van Gogh’s work and intent in this manner feels instinctively sacrilegious – should those famous sunflowers really rustle in the digital breeze? Should that windmill actually be seen to turn? Yet watching kids frolic merrily in front of those iconic sunflowers and windmills underlined how accessible Van Gogh Alive makes the art, while the narrative arc offers audiences either a welcome refresher, or a way in.

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