Radiant colors, swirling brushstrokes and iconic compositions have made Vincent van Gogh an art-world superstar and ensured that his sun-soaked landscapes and probing portraits are visitor favorites at art museums around the world, including the Art Institute, which as recently as 2016 showcased his work in a dedicated exhibit.
But as alluring as his paintings are, what if there was a way to enjoy them in a whole new way? To, in a sense, enter and become immersed in these transporting scenes? That’s the premise behind the “Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit,” a walk-through digital experience set to open Feb. 11 in the recently renovated Germania Club building at 108 W. Germania Place.
“It’s something completely different,” said co-producer Corey Ross. “It’s film-meets-exhibition-meets-experiential in the sense that is a trend now in the arts from ‘Sleep No More’ to the Museum of Ice Cream to the ‘Friends’ exhibit in Chicago.”
The exhibition was originally supposed to run through May 2, but ticket sales since November have been so strong that a second block of tickets has been released, extending visits through Sept. 6.
“Immersive Van Gogh” incorporates 400 licensed van Gogh works from around the world, but it is not simply a parade of images. “What’s important about the show is the way [artistic creator] Massimiliano [Siccardi] deconstructs and reconstructs and animates the pieces,” Ross said. “So, if you’re coming expecting to see one piece in isolation like you might at a museum, that’s not what this experience is.”
More than 75 digital projectors and nearly 500,000 cubic feet of projected imagery bring the show alive, with images enlarged on 35-foot-walls and splashed across every available surface. “To my knowledge, it is the largest digital installation in the world right now,” Ross said.
The exhibition will follow COVID-19 guidelines with temperature checks, touchless ticketing and limited capacity. In addition, digitally projected viewing circles on gallery floors will help ensure appropriate spacing.
Since 2012, Siccardi has helped create annual immersive experiences based around the work of famed artists for the Carrières de Lumières, a specially designed venue in a former bauxite quarry. It is situated in France’s southeastern region of Provence, where Van Gogh lived for the last two years or so of his life and created many of his best-known paintings.
These presentations link art and theater, virtual reality and reality. “I think people want to experience art and live new experiences,” the Italian creative director and film producer said via email. “Wandering in a huge space as ‘part’ of the works of art is a great pleasure for all our senses. At the same time, watching others taking part in the work is very engaging.”
Ross discovered Siccardi’s work in Paris in 2018 with a van Gogh show titled “Starry Night,” which drew some 2 million visitors and was featured in episode 5 of the Netflix series “Emily in Paris.” He thought such a show would make sense for the North American market, and “Immersive Van Gogh” made its debut in Toronto where Ross’ firm, Starvox Entertainment, is based.
Ross has produced multiple shows in Chicago, including “Potted Potter” and “Evil Dead the Musical,” and he thought the city would be well-suited to a second permutation of this van Gogh-centered show. Siccardi agreed. “Chicago is a city of culture and art,” he said. “I believe that people [there] are ready to live this experience. I am really curious to hear their comments.”
The exhibit follows a kind of informal storyline, imagining what might have passed before van Gogh’s eyes at the end of his life — a whirl of clouds, sunflowers, stars and other imagery. “But it’s more than just the movement of the pieces that’s interesting,” Ross said, “it’s the way that they transform from one to the other and take you through what Massimiliano imagines van Gogh was thinking. And it’s quite emotional.”
The exhibition spreads across two large ballrooms and several other rooms and adjoining nooks, more than 14,000 square feet in all, merging with the striking architectural attributes of the Beaux Arts-style Germania Club building.
Accompanying the show is a soundtrack created by Italian composer Luca Longobardi, who has collaborated on 15 shows with Siccardi since 2012. He assembled a 35-minute sound loop that is meant to support and enhance the emotional experience of the visual imagery.
It draws on a range of existing music, from pop songs to classical works, each rearranged to fit the needs of the experience, and includes Longobardi’s original writing. The soundtrack’s “experimental language” is performed on the composer’s upright piano and a range of other instruments, including acoustical and digital synthesizers.
“In my opinion,” Longobardi said, “the soundtrack has to be one long continuous score. I feel like I’m creating one long symphony, because editing music for me is like composing. Therefore, I complete several tasks: I am a music supervisor and editor as well as a composer, pianist and recording and sound engineer.”
Responses to the show in Toronto have run the gamut from some visitors tearing up to others dancing exuberantly. But whatever the reaction, Siccardi is in no way trying to replace the actual artworks but reinterpret and complement them in new, exciting ways.
“I sincerely hope,” he said, “to intrigue people to the point that they want to go and enjoy art in museums — to view the original paintings in their truest form and might.”