At “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” in D.C.'s Rhode Island Center (not to be confused with the similarly titled “Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit” playing around the country, including New York City), you’re being sold the idea of Van Gogh’s greatness in as many reproducible shapes and sizes as possible. Reproduced Van Gogh self-portraits peer down at you from banners that run the length of the center’s walls. They also illuminate a nine-foot-tall bust that has been executed with the artistic finesse of Mount Rushmore. At the end of the immersive film, which aims to tell the story of his life, those same portraits burst into pixelated bits while a voice-over reads the famous Van Gogh quote, “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”
You’re likely to leave an immersive Van Gogh event feeling like you’ve been immersed in little more than the capabilities of a projector. There’s not much effort to go beyond the fraught, tired idea that this artist was a singular genius, driven mostly by his mental health struggles.
Which is why I recently sought out an entirely different Van Gogh experience in Ohio.
“Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources,” at the Columbus Museum of Art through Feb. 6, envisions a more sober version of Van Gogh. The exhibition, which opens next at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (running Feb. 27 through May 22), does not perpetuate Van Gogh the “crazy genius,” but instead adds layers to our understanding of the man and provides necessary artistic context by displaying his works alongside those of his influences. It coincides with the release of “Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved,” a new book by Van Gogh biographer Steven Naifeh. In the exhibition catalogue, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s assistant director, Eik Kahng, who curated the show along with Naifeh and the Columbus museum’s David Stark, writes that Van Gogh’s work is “so familiar in this digital age that we have become less sensitive to its actual complexity.”
“Rather than automatically assuming that Van Gogh’s genius alone can account for the compelling aspects of his art,” the show asks, “how can we reconnect him to the expressive possibilities he admired in the art of his time?” she writes.
The Columbus exhibit offers Van Gogh’s “Roses” (1890), which has impasto brushstrokes that appear so fresh the petals seem in perpetual bloom. It is displayed between Édouard Manet’s “Peonies” (1864-1865) and Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Chrysanthemums of Summer” (ca. 1887). Here, writing taken from Van Gogh’s letters brings you especially close to his hand. He extols a Manet painting (similar to the one we are looking at) for its harmonious impasto and “simplicity of technique.” He praises Fantin-Latour, too, for his “Chardinesque” style, referring to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, an artist whose style of placing “touches of color next to each other” Van Gogh would take as his own.
Throughout the Columbus show, Van Gogh’s mythology is deconstructed. You can see the dynamic colors and shapes of his brushstrokes foreshadowed in Eugène Delacroix’s “Winter: Juno and Aeolus” (1856), where curved marks accentuate the motion in the waves and clouds. Contemporaneous paintings of agricultural scenes set the tone for Van Gogh’s. Jules Breton’s affection for the peasant girls in his sublime sunset scene “The Return from the Fields” (1867), for instance, seems to spill into Van Gogh’s golden brushstrokes in “The Wheatfield” (1888), as if he paints them so triumphantly to will a good harvest.
Paradoxically, Van Gogh’s singularity becomes clearer in the company of his influences. Stand back from “Les Vessenots in Auvers” (1890) and you can see traces of Émile Bernard’s strange use of perspective, which appears in “Woman Walking on the Banks of the Aven” (1890) hung beside it. The colorful but more measured tones used in “Houses at the Foot of a Cliff” (1895-1898) by Edgar Degas, whom Van Gogh likened to an uptight lawyer, allow you to see Van Gogh’s palette bright as ever.
Van Gogh was an over-the-top art fan. He talked about Jean-François Millet (of “Gleaners” fame) with the fervor of a preteen at a boy-band concert, and once said he’d give 10 years of his life to look at Rembrandt’s “Isaac and Rebecca” (ca. 1665-1669) for two weeks straight with nothing to eat but a piece of bread. He was drawn to painters of The Hague and Barbizon schools, who painted the unvarnished, quiet work of everyday life, and specifically admired Millet and Jozef Israëls for their compassionate representations of agriculture workers.
Van Gogh maintained a close relationship with his brother, Theo, an art dealer, who kept him connected to greater contemporary art circles. He amassed more than 1,400 prints and followed art printed in magazines, particularly work by peasant painter Léon Lhermitte, whom he called “Millet II.” Looking out at the art world, he saw himself not as separate from it, but as part of a group of painters he termed “Le Petit Boulevard,” including Georges Seurat and Bernard. He even aspired to create his own artist colony in Arles.
When Van Gogh left major art hubs or retreated to the countryside, he spent time with farmworkers in the fields at harvest and sought the art in what was around him. He went to Arles, seeking the landscape of the Japanese prints he loved so much, and found echoes of Honoré Daumier’s cafe scenes, too. Auvers, where he spent his last few months, was also frequented by one of his favorite Hague School painters, Charles-François Daubigny.
For all the beauty in his work, Van Gogh liked the messier, uglier things in life, a reality captured by his reaction to Gérôme’s glossy painting “Phryne Before the Areopagus” (1861). “I would much rather see an ugly woman by Israëls or Millet or a little old woman by E. Frère,” he writes in a letter to Theo. “For what does a beautiful body such as Phryné’s really matter? … Hasn’t life been given to us to become rich in our hearts, even if our appearance suffers from it?”
It is that very sense of richness, and messiness, that is missing from those slick, camera-ready immersive experiences.
At the Rhode Island Center, you’ll find Van Gogh the tortured icon. At the Columbus Museum of Art, you’ll meet an eager, starry-eyed, complex human — Van Gogh the museumgoer, the lifelong student, the brother, the nature-lover, the empath.
When it comes to someone as famous as Van Gogh, we cannot trust our impressions. What we know about Van Gogh says less about him than it does about what we value culturally, what qualities we elevate, our reverence for the individualist.
By reducing artists to their most glamorous or most pained, we alienate them. Van Gogh’s brilliance becomes mystifying and his madness becomes an excuse not to look at his work more closely. We risk missing the quiet, lived experiences of Van Gogh the person, and the humble humanity that makes his work resonate so widely in the first place.