My daughter and I had both been wanting to see the Van Gogh Immersive Experience almost since we first got word of it. However, the right opportunity hadn’t come up—until this previous Christmas. The exhibit in Raleigh, N.C. is within driving distance, and we’d have the time during the holiday season.
Shortly after Christmas we packed up the gang, including her four sons, aged 5 to 11, and headed to a shopping center on the outskirts of Raleigh. We were late for our appointed time, but it didn’t really matter. The main feature–the large surround video–runs on a loop.
Before you get to that, though, you walk through a series of exhibit rooms that feature an overview of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and dip into several of his paintings (and series of paintings) in more detail to talk about the inspiration for them, sketching and painting technique, and noteworthy details. The boys enjoyed walking into the setup of Van Gogh’s bedroom from his paintings and standing in front of a life-size version of another, but beyond that they mostly wanted to move on.
We finally reached the main room, the large space where the really immersive experience takes place. To my considerable surprise, all of the boys enjoyed this part and sat relatively calmly (as calmly as small boys can) for most of the 40-minute loop.
There’s very little audio (only a couple of Van Gogh quotes read out loud), but the visuals keep changing at a pace calibrated not to strain the brain in keeping up, but steady enough to maintain interest.
And it really does come close to letting you feel as though you’re in his paintings. The displays completely fill your field of vision, though a few poles interfere with some angles. The animations highlight some amazing features of the paintings. Some help illustrate his brush techniques, show his state of mind, and bring out details you could otherwise easily miss. The paintings themselves sometimes roll into action in front of you.
As my daughter pointed out, Van Gogh’s paintings lend themselves to this type of exhibition due to the built-in dynamism of so many of his works, but I think it could work with other artists as well.
The main feature, of course, is one of Van Gogh’s best-known and astonishingly compelling paintings: Starry, Starry Night. Almost everyone recognizes it. Almost everyone responds to it at a visceral level without knowing why. The exhibit offers clues to that pull in the way the stars roll and tumble in the sky; the dark, spear-shaped cypress tree pushing up into that space; and the quiet village, with its scattered illuminated windows, tucked peacefully beneath the almost-living sky above and the looming mountains behind it. The spike of the church’s steeple also pokes up into the sky, less dramatically than the tree.
The village sits quietly at the center of all this natural action going on around it. Taken as a whole it suggests so much about the nature of reality, our illusion of control of our lives, the threats we have to disregard to keep going, and so much more.
But there’s much more to this rolling video than just that one painting. You soak in the works inspired by Japanese prints. Landscapes engulf you. Storm clouds gather in some of his darker works. It’s wonderful and fascinating and I didn’t want to leave.
Moving on after the large room brought you into a space where the organizers provided desk space, crayons, and coloring pages of several of the art works. All of the boys took advantage of the opportunity, but I noticed that some adults also tried their hand. Once done, a scanner at the end of one of the tables transmitted a digital copy of the colored picture to a large digital display on the far wall.
We walked through a room that offered booths and headsets for a virtual reality tour of Van Gogh’s home and environs, but we didn’t want to try to boys’ patience any further and proceeded on through to the inevitable gift shop that completed the experience.
The whole thing is kind of pricey, especially when you take the whole family. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Can you take the whole family? From my experience I’d also answer this in the affirmative, though parents have to judge for themselves whether the format would work for their children.