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Arts & Theater

Hartford’s high-tech, immersive ‘Beyond Van Gogh’ offers a more joyous perspective of the artist

It’s summer, and the sunflowers are in bloom as the spirit of Vincent Van Gogh fills the Connecticut Convention Center with color, light, movement and imagination for the next two months.

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The immersive art experience “Beyond Van Gogh” will be on display through Oct. 2. The project was created by Normal Studio in Canada and produced by Paquin Entertainment Group.

Fanny Curtat, a Montreal-based art historian who wrote the explanatory text pieces for the exhibit, calls “Beyond Van Gogh” a “blend of technology and artwork. It’s such a unique experience to play with his work, to be inside it.”

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She says the digital experience “will never replace a museum exhibit” but offers a chance to appreciate the work from “different angles,” including “a sense of how differently he perceived himself.” She wanted the text passages she wrote to be a mix of what one might read in a conventional museum setting and something more informal, basic and creative.

“I don’t expect people to read every single panel,” the historian says. Indeed, one is easily distracted by the shifting colors and images.

“Vincent was all about sharing. His work was filled with light and joy,” Curtat said during the opening ceremony Wednesday morning.

Gov. Ned Lamont attended the opening.

“I love Van Gogh and I think you will as well, after seeing this exhibit,” Lamont said. “He painted out his feelings, including some deep, dark feelings. He was one of the most extraordinary artists ever.”

Lamont plans to return to the Hartford exhibit with his family and thinks the show’s high-tech presentation will appeal to a younger audience that might not otherwise be exposed to the artist’s work.

The first few sections of “Beyond Van Gogh” consist of glowing images in darkly lit rooms that combine Van Gogh’s art with text passages about his life. There are quotations from the letters the painter wrote to his brother Theo. Between the rows of brightly illuminated writings hang empty picture frames. There is an accessible design to the whole exhibit.

The texts don’t need to be read in order. There is a lighthearted tone to much of the commentary, with puns (”Gogh This Way”) and upbeat descriptions. It’s an unexpectedly positive outlook to apply to an artist often defined by depression, poor health and personal failure.

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A section titled “An Immense Joy” reads: “Madness, suffering, ear-cutting despair, extreme poverty... Van Gogh’s myth tells the tale of a melancholic martyr who took his own life in an ultimate act of revulsion. Yet to follow the evolution of Van Gogh’s work is to step from the shadows into the light, to move from darkness to brightness, into an explosion of pure pigments. Far from the madness that accompanies the legend of his genius, Van Gogh’s work radiates joy and celebrates life.”

The text images are illuminating and enlightening, but they are just the prelude for the main event. Following the many rows of text-and-image screens, there is a large dark entranceway lit with swirling circular shapes and beads of light in the style of Van Gogh’s most famous painting, “Starry Night.”

That’s just a taste of what happens in the vast final exhibition space of “Beyond Van Gogh.” Familiar images from famous Van Gogh paintings expand to cover entire walls. The images move. Flower petals appear to fly through the air, wrapping around all four sides of giant pillars in the room. Paintings with similar themes — flowers, buildings, self-portraits — form into impromptu mini-exhibits of their own. There’s a montage of just Van Gogh’s signature, taken from an array of canvases. Some of the works become animated. Water shimmers. The walls appear to drip, whether with rain or paint. Some images bleed out onto the floor, covering it in bright flowers. Van Gogh winks.

The artworks shift, change, expand and transform in various configurations for a set 36-minute pattern before repeating. The vibrant. moving images are accompanied by recorded music, played more loudly than you’d expect at an art event. The music ranges from modern classical composer Max Richter’s reworking of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” to the violin/piano duo of Paula Kiete and Chris Snelling with an instrumental cover of the Don McLean pop song “Vincent”) to jazz greats Miles Davis, Bill Frisell and Pat Methany. The complete 15-song playlist, compiled by sound designer Jean-Sébastien Côté, can be found on the streaming music service Spotify.

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“Beyond Van Gogh” reflects modern-day cultural and art-world trends, with its larger-than-life installation qualities and state-of-the-art digital projections. It also evokes other pop-culture phenomena. It will be hard for fans of the “Doctor Who” TV series to see the exhibit without thinking of the 10th episode of the show’s fifth season, where The Doctor befriends the painter: The adventure ends in the present-day at a Van Gogh exhibit, which shifts and swirls around the viewers as the artist himself comes to terms with his own legacy.

Curtat notes that there are other companies with their own immersive Van Gogh exhibits. The one in Hartford, for instance, is not related to either of the two Van Gogh exhibits (called “Imagine Van Gogh” and “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience”) that visited Boston last year.

“Beyond Van Gogh” is also able to present identical versions of the same exhibition in different cities at the same. Curtat says there are currently eight in the U.S. Since the company generally works with convention centers, they can all be organized similarly. Setting up each exhibit can take seven to 10 days.

“Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” is open Wednesday and Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. Final entry is an hour before close. Tickets must be purchased online and are not available at the door. Prices begin at $39.99 for adults and $23.99 for children ages 5 to 15. More information on the exhibit is at beyondvangoghhartford.com.

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Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.


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