I admit it. I’m a heathen when it comes to the world of art. I honestly don’t know the difference between a Picasso and a piano and, until I was about 18, I genuinely thought Hertz Van Rental was a famous German composer of some note.
In my 20s, I was once taken to see the London Symphony Orchestra play in the beautiful surroundings of the Barbican Centre in London and didn’t really, fully, understand the etiquette, so accidentally enthusiastically clapped one of the caretakers who was bringing out some extra chairs. In the deadly quiet of an acoustically engineered hall, it was all rather easy to spot someone as uncultured as me.
I’d like to say that as I’ve got older and more thoughtful, I’ve got a better appreciation for all things arty and would dearly love to have the head space to learn more about it, but then a wife and children happened and now the closest I get to any sort of culture is the unidentified organic matter that grows in the plates my daughter leaves in her bedroom. Marie Currie would certainly be proud.
So when Mrs B burst into the lounge last week, announcing that she’d secured us two tickets to go and see Van Gogh Experience at the Brighton Dome, I was grateful for two main reasons – one, I would finally have the time to actually start appreciating some art, and two, we might get a sneaky night out without the kids.
By all rights, I should also be properly into the art of Vincent Van Gogh. My middle name is actually Vincent, and my father maintains that’s because he was a massive fan of his artwork in the 1970s. I always found that quite a curious choice of name as I’m definitely not an artist, but I guess you don’t know that when your baby is a couple of days old. I am forever grateful my father was a fan of Vincent Van Gogh and not, say, Pablo Picasso.
The Van Gogh Immersive Experience – Brighton Dome
But I thought the least I could do was take a peek at my namesake’s efforts, so it came to pass that one warm, Thursday night, Mrs B and I bunked off work early, dropped the kids off with the grandparents, booked a table at the Shelter Hall for dinner (see separate blog!) and drove into Brighton; destination The Dome, to see Van Gogh Alive.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The website says “From start to finish, visitors are surrounded by a vibrant symphony of light, colour, sound and fragrance as they wander around the exhibition and absorb it from every possible angle. Van Gogh’s masterpieces come to life, giving visitors the sensation of walking right into his paintings, a feeling that is simultaneously enchanting, entertaining and educational.”
I was not disappointed.
On entering the Dome, the Van Gogh Immersive Exhibition is accessed via the bar area, where you can grab a drink of something refreshing to clutch as you begin your experience. Mrs B ordered me a cool glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and opted for a craft alcohol-free beer for herself and, after a quick ticket check, you move into the main exhibition area of the Dome via the Interpretative Area. This area gives you a bit of information on the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh and acts as a bit of an amuse-bouche for the main Van Gogh Immersive Exhibition.
Entering through a short tunnel decorated in the style of his Starry Night painting, you suddenly enter the main area, the SENSORY4™ Gallery; a riot of canvas effect walls placed at all and every conceivable angle, on which different aspects of Van Gogh’s paintings are projected one or two at a time. No matter where you look, there’s an angle of his paintings you maybe hadn’t seen or appreciated before. Whether you like it or not, you’re getting art, right in your face.
In the background, uplifting classical music plays that have a connection with the painting being displayed and if that wasn’t enough of an audio-visual treat, suddenly you’ll notice that elements of his paintings have been subtly animated to move … ever so slightly.
That train the background of his 1888 work “The Yellow House”? Yup, it gives off steam and gently moves. Did… did the bartender in The Night Café (1888) just wink and smile at me? I think he did. You can meander around at your leisure, appreciating the art from every angle and soaking up the atmosphere – and what an interesting atmosphere it was.
I mean, you can go to somewhere like the National Portrait Gallery and what will strike you most is probably not the paintings, but the air of constrained silence. Not so here, where people natter, share their thoughts on the paintings, the painter, the music, and how it makes them all feel.
You’ll see enthusiastic art students taking selfies with L’Arlésienne: Madame Ginoux with Books, which I didn’t know was a thing until I saw it. You’ll see people sitting, standing, pondering and sharing. You’ll even see people lying on the floor to appreciate a painting from a different angle, and if you were there on Thursday, you’ll have also seen Mrs B spilling and dropping her beer.
Between each painting, the screens will show a quote or a fact from the great man himself and the paintings themselves seemed to be displayed in chronological order, which made sense to me because I got the distinct impression they did get better as time went on.
For me, it wasn’t so much about what was painted, but definitely more about how each part of the exhibition made you feel. Sure, you can stare at Sunflowers for ages, but what comes back? Something about the complexity of life? Wasn’t there an echo of loneliness in his self-portraits? Was his painting of Paul Gauguin’s Armchair a reflection of his burning jealousy at Paul Gauguin’s relatively more opulent lifestyle?
I dunno man, I just write nonsense for a hobby and I’m trying desperately not to sound pretentious, but that’s what I got from it. I mean, I could be entirely wrong and it’s literally just a picture – after all, Sigmund Freud said “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar”, but that’s the joy of art, I guess. It’s what it does for you.
After a pleasant hour of being happily hypnotised by rotating artworks, we took a walk upstairs to the Sunflower Exhibition, where you can literally put yourself in Van Gogh’s position as they have replicated his bedroom, giving you an opportunity to ponder his life from a rather unique perspective.
There’s also a mirrored room complete with hundreds of sunflowers for a rather trippy experience – or, I guess, a rather unique picture for your socials. Exit is, as always, via a gift shop, in case you urgently need an umbrella decorated with sunflowers.
If you’re into art, I can heartily recommend Van Gogh Alive as an exciting and new perspective on his works. However, if you’re not into art, I can also heartily recommend Van Gogh Alive, because it’s not the turgid museum experience you might have suffered in the past, but a really interesting way to begin your appreciation of all things paint.
I walked away with a definitely renewed respect for my (middle) namesake. It’s definitely tragic that Vincent Van Gogh was a raving madman who produced some genuinely beautiful artefacts and his true genius was only recognised, long after his untimely death.
Hmm. Perhaps we do share some similarities, after all. I’ll leave you to decide which ones.
Van Gogh Alive is held in the refurbished Brighton Dome Corn Exchange and Studio Theatre this Spring and Summer until Sun 3 Sep 23 from 10 am to 8.30pm. Tickets are available online and cost £24.00 (Full Price), £19.00 (Concessions), £16.25 (Families; minimum of 4 tickets). Under 5s are free.