Beyond Van Gogh and Monet

Posted on: June 15, 2024
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By Mary Beth Widhalm

This is not a traditional art exhibit – Fanny Curtat, art historian consultant for the Beyond Van Gogh and Monet immersive art experience, wants that to be clear. Immersive art experiences tend to get a bad rap from the ivory tower art world, but this is far from a selfie museum. This is about connecting a 21st-century audience with a 19th-century artist through cutting-edge projection technology, historical context, and soundscapes that include Miles Davis, lo-fi hip hop, rainstorms, and birdsongs.

Monet’s famous Woman with a Parasol greets you, larger than life and aglow. You are invited to slow down in this darkened space. Printed fabric banners and lit panels explain the cultural environment of the lives of the two painters curated through quotes from letters or critics, as well as Curtat’s extensive education and research. She easily summarizes entire art movements with her vast knowledge. A recreation of Monet’s bridge over his adored waterlilies provides an ideal photo op. I’m reminded that the artist himself dabbled in the idea of immersive art, obsessed with filling the walls of a room with waterlilies changing color from morning to sunset. 

In the main room, the tall walls are completely illuminated. Projections coming from seemingly nowhere fill up the entire room. For a moment it is all blank paper, then slowly pencil lines are sketched on the walls and floors. Color – one brushstroke at a time – fills the room until it has wrapped you in a bear hug of Van Gogh’s vibrant blues and yellows or Monet’s chalky sunrise. No, this is nothing like being in the presence of the paintings; this is something else entirely. 

Standing in the middle of the room, I am tossed in waves of brushstrokes into white oceans and yellow fields. The scene settles to barrooms and sidewalk cafes and I look up at the trees. A moment later, I am flying up into a pulsating starry night sky. The water ripples, portraits blink and breathe. Gentle music plays as we meander among lifesized locals in famous streets, swaying trees and sailboats, stepping through his larger-than-life bedroom, feeling almost like a child.

Her team consults with her on the tech, but Curtat’s main goal is to tell the artists’ stories to as many people as possible. In fact, she has trouble pulling herself away from conversations about either artist, speaking about them as revered friends or professors. “Would you like a fun tidbit?” I heard her say more than once. “When people think of Van Gogh, they think first of his ear,” she bemoans. She wants to tell his other story that includes vibrant, joyful colors, springtime contained in one frame, and the faces of people he knew and loved. 

Critics chastise the experience for digitally manipulating the artists’ original works, thereby risking distortion of the artists’ intended meaning and vision and sacrificing the integrity of the works. However, the hundreds of paintings featured in this experience would be prohibitively costly to exhibit once, let alone tour the country. That cuts off accessibility to so many who cannot travel to museums, those who think museums are boring or that they will not be welcome there (yes, art world, many people do not feel comfortable in your gilded spaces). Those audiences get to experience the art in a different way with vivid detail. Fanny Curtat has woven together many threads to create an artistic curation that helps us see the artists the way she does. Even fans of the famous artists will be delighted to see something familiar in a totally new way. 

The Austin-American Statesman, 305 S. Congress Ave., Austin, TX 78704

Dates: May 31, 2024 – September 14, 2024 (Closed Mondays)  10am-8pm

Price: $30-$80

Presented by Paquin Entertainment Group