Review: The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit

by Lynn on December 31, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

I can’t think of a better way of ending this lousy year than with a review requiring the Red Face of Fury. The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit.

All safety precautions were followed as I went into the exhibit entrance at 1 Yonge Street: masked, social distancing and there was a line-up of people waiting to get into the space until other people left the space. While waiting inside we could appreciate the signage that listed the stats on the technology that went into creating the exhibit: 400 images were used; 52 projectors, 90 million pixels, 200 amps of power, 500,000 cubic feet of high-def digital projections, 60,600 frames of video (I don’t quite understand that figure, but that’s what it said). For some humour we could follow the arrows on the floor with an image of a masked Van Gogh and the message: “when you gotta “Gogh” indicating the way to the washrooms. I sighed.

The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit is housed in the former printing room of the Toronto Star building at 1 Yonge Street. You wait in a dimly lighted walkway while being bombarded with a soundscape of throbbing music coming from the exhibit room, classical, modern and when I got into the room, Edith Piaf singing “Je ne regrette rien.”

The room is massive: long and wide. Images of portions, sections or aspects of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings are projected onto the walls and the floor while viewers stand or wander around the room, experiencing being emersed in all the digital dexterity hoping that your ear drums won’t burst because of the loud soundscape.

There are illuminated spheres on the floor to ensure social distancing. You can ‘watch’ the exhibit from a raised platform you get to by a set of stairs. On one wall fragments of Van Gogh’s paintings slowly travel along the wall. A windmill is manipulated so that the windmill is rotating. A river undulates suggesting the movement of water. I note that the movement of the images does not wrap around the other walls. Other fragments of Van Gogh’s paintings are splattered on the side walls with other images on the other long wall. There is a haystack, there is a sunflower, over there is a chair.

In one dramatic moment there is stirring music, with smashes of cymbals and explosions of colour and light on one wall. The images and music are so in synch and build to such a pitch that I figure this is a logical end to the exhibit. But no. It continues with more images, self-portraits etc. and eventually ends with the name ‘Vincent’ scrawled along the walls. I remain until the loop starts again and Piaf begins singing again (where I came in)  and the image of what that song accompanies blurs into nothingness.

No painting is actually shown in full or identified. It’s almost as if one has to know the names of the paintings. Or perhaps not. After all, if one is ‘immersed’ in the ‘experience’ as if drowning in light, pixels and exaggerated images, one can’t discern detail really that encapsulates the whole. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the point is to create an ‘experience’ for people who don’t go to art galleries to pretend that this is another way to appreciate art. It isn’t. Just as taking a picture of a painting in a gallery, never to look at it again, isn’t actually ‘seeing’ the painting.

I hated every wretched moment of this tasteless, vulgar, cheap display trying to give us another way of appreciating the brilliant work of Vincent Van Gogh. The arrogance.

The gift shop was a perfect conclusion. Some posters depicted Van Gogh with the left side of his head bandaged (because of his missing ear), another showed him with the right side of his head bandaged. I said vaguely to a woman working there that they couldn’t decide what ear he cut off. (It was his left said one of the patrons). The woman behind the counter said that I was looking at a mirror image—regarding the poster with the right side bandaged.) I silently sucked air with that. I saw a pair of earrings on display. One earring was of the head of Van Gogh with his ear missing. The other earring was the missing ear. Tasteless. Vulgar. Cheap. I had to get out of there.

I am grateful for the catalogue with the text by Richard Ouzounian because it does what this hideous exhibit didn’t do: it carefully, clearly told us about Van Gogh, his history, poverty, mental illness and demons and it not only showed us some of his paintings, but it also put them in perspective.  

Produced by Lighthouse Immersive

Held over until April 2021.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 maja ardal December 31, 2020 at 6:56 am

We had to leave the exhibit quickly after a short time because the busy images and loud music made our almost ten-year-old granddaughter become sick with a migraine. She adores art, knew about Van Gogh, and was really looking forward to it. Such a disappointment. I’m sure there are many people who couldn’t tolerate the bombardment of the senses.


2 Lynn December 31, 2020 at 12:34 pm

Oh Dear,
I’m so sorry about your granddaughter getting sick. Best to take her to a gallery to look at the painting so she can see and look and appreciate the work quietly, in ‘private’ and with appreciation. Happy New Year, gifted woman.


3 VWalk January 4, 2021 at 9:39 am

Thanks for this review which has unequivocally answered my question about attending this exhibit. The art blockbuster spectacles have become a travesty with huge crowds of people just belt-notching: I love your line about taking pictures never to be looked at again, which reminds me of a scene witnessed years ago when video cameras had just come out: a husband admonishing his wife who was tarrying too long, to hurry up because she could see it all on video when they got home.
I think that having a quiet, leisurely visit with the artist at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam will remain the ne plus ultra of the Van Gogh “experience.”


4 Bunny Hudson January 4, 2021 at 1:13 pm

Oddly enough, i found the display useful. I teach ESL through art, and this show allowed the students to compare the real thing with this montage, and how they might have done it differently. Or to imagine how VG himself might have reacted to it. Good for debate on the arts.


5 Joe Blow March 17, 2021 at 6:21 pm

Why can’t you just go there and enjoy it. You know it’s not going to be his paintings or anything like that, it’s just something to do for a little while and it’s a completely different way of seeing things. Stop being so closed-minded and whine and complain about everything. Go and have fun for crying out loud.


6 Linda April 5, 2021 at 7:41 pm

I agree with Joe. Being haughty about the exhibit provides a reason many people do not visit a museum. Haven’t seen it yet but I can imagine it would appeal to teens. Get em any way you can.
PS. I would object to the earrings


7 Judy Walker September 10, 2021 at 11:12 pm

Joe. We all have different standards and likes and dislikes. Some people like NASCAR. Others like Mahler. Most people somewhere in the middle. sounds like the Van Gogh exhibit is lacking in substance. I’d be bored in 5 minutes.