A discussion with the historian behind Van Gogh exhibit

A WJCT News interview with the historian behind the Van Gogh exhibit.

Diana Donovan, left, executive director of the Greater Jacksonville Cultural Council, speaks with Fanny Curtat, art historian for “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” during a preview of the exhibition at the Immersive Art Space on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. (Will Brown/Jacksonville Today)

Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, encouraged his brother to find the beauty in as much as he can, because too few people see the beauty in things.

Today, the 19th century painter’s work goes on display for River City residents when “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” opens.

What was once the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville has been transformed into an art space where Van Gogh’s work will be enlarged and depicted on screens as part of an immersive experience.

“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” will be open in Jacksonville until Nov. 6.

Fanny Curtat is an art historian who is consulting with “Beyond Van Gogh.” She spoke with WJCT News before its opening.

Q: What is someone, who hasn’t seen this exhibit yet, what are they going to see that they’ve never seen before?

A: This experience is really about blending cutting edge projection technology along with Vincent’s body of work. And that plan allows the audience to literally set foot into his world to be part of his colors, to follow the brushstrokes as they move around you. It’s really (unlike) anything else that they’ve experienced. And it’s also pretty hard to describe. It’s something that you have to feel; that’s what immersion is all about. You have to resonate with it. When you’re in the space, you’re actually moving along with it. And it’s really hard to describe it. It’s also phenomenal to be part of.

Q: Describe the immersion process and having multiple senses touched during this process and how that helps stimulate the experience.

A: Visual, of course, is always going to be the main thing when you’re talking about art and paintings, especially like in this case with Van Gogh. But when you’re talking about these visuals being animated, and just moving around you, that’s the first step of the immersion, because you really react to it differently.

The fact that it’s also on such a large scale, it’s really enormous. You get to be part of it on a scale that’s much higher than you. That’s also something that changes wildly our perception of something.

To be inside of it on such a large scale with everything, the movement, that’s part of it; but, also, music plays such an important role to connect you with the journey you’re embarking on. It’s really creating this narrative. It’s bringing you along with it.

It’s about bringing together this 19th century artist to a 21st century audience. And all of these elements, the immersion, the music, they help provide this bridge that helps you connect and see that he’s still so relevant, still so fresh (and) that he’s such a perfect fit for an experience like this.

“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” will continue until Nov. 6. (Will Brown/Jacksonville Today)

Q: Van Gogh himself was someone who attempted to become a preacher, before becoming an artist. Is it unique for you to be able to have this exhibit inside of a place that was once a sanctuary?

A: Anything that’s relevant about art today is a way to coexist, with its present time, it’s setting and what you’re going through. If you’re going through different things in your life, his paintings are not going to change, but they’re going to resonate for you differently. If you’re in a location like this, that resonates with this history, well, then it shows also because it becomes this dialogue with the art you’re looking into.

Vincent tried to be a preacher and failed. He was trying to be like his father and trying to emulate this sacredness that he saw in the world, but in different terms. That’s what “Starry Night” is.

It’s really about this powerful nature that’s sacred, the sublime all around us. And so to be in a space like that, it’s going to resonate differently. You can see in it, whatever you want, and it will be open, it will be justified. His work is for us. He gave it to us for us to be helped by it and see whatever we want in it, and it will be justified.

Q: Describe the process of getting this exhibit to Jacksonville and the many folks who made it happen.

A: This project was created during COVID. So, first of all, is the creation of NOMAD’s studio in Montreal and Pacquin Entertainment Group in Winnipeg. We had in mind to bring it to as many places as we could. It was really about producing a show that would bring joy, bring some sort of respite and relief, but also would travel well and would be easy to adapt.

Now they’re getting pretty used to it with over 4 million tickets sold.

Every market is going to be different, and every city is going to respond to it differently. Here, the reception has been really, really incredible.

The demand for it is really, really great. And, it created this incredible partnership here with the venue that’s now changing and becoming this whole new thing. All of these elements make it really, really special for us. This show, and his Vincent’s work, is truly for everyone.

The Van Gogh exhibit touches all of the visitor’s senses. (Will Brown/Jacksonville Today)

Q: Van Gogh is someone who didn’t always believe in his greatness. He struggled with self-belief. Do you think his life can showcase parallels or examples to people who come to this exhibition about someone who did what he could with the gifts he had during the time he was living, even though things might have been tremendously difficult?

A: That’s the whole goal of this show. Vincent’s life is part of his work, but it’s also about sharing the solutions from it.

Yes, there are all of these horror tales he went through, but there are elements in his life — for example he painted “Starry Night” while he was in an asylum. There was elements in his life, where it’s just showcasing this urge of finding therapeutic power in art, there’s this need also to share it, to see what he would find in these elements and art in general, and just share it with the world.

Everything about him is not only relevant, because we still find these pictures beautiful. It’s incredibly inspiring, because all he went through and the choices he made. He knew what he could have been painting in order to be successful in his lifetime. He didn’t do that, because he felt he was onto something. He felt he was communicating something that was greater than that.

That was his appreciation for nature. This, again, therapeutic power of art, power of color. And all of these made it worth it for him to just go through and endure all of the struggles that he did, and not being successful in his lifetime.

He was able to transcend not only his pain into art, but also ordinary life (and) showcase its beauty.

He’s somebody who saw a pair of boots by the door and deemed it worthy of an artwork, a bag of onions on the table. And that’s just a wonderful lesson to have to look at our surroundings and see the beauty that’s already in it without going to try to find an ideal version of reality or Venus coming out of a shell.

It’s really about focusing on everything that’s so great about his work and so relevant and that has to do with the way he overcame his struggles and was trying to deal with them.

Article by Will Brown originally published on September 16, 2022 on Jacksonville Today.

See stories by Will Brown - Jacksonville Today