It’s been a month since I visited the immersive Beyond Van Gogh traveling exhibit in Davenport, Iowa, and I’m still gushing about it to anyone who will listen. Go. You will not regret spending $44 this way. Eat peanut butter sandwiches and rice ’n’ beans for a couple weeks if you have to, but just go.
Imagine the most glorious series of paintings ever created, launched into motion together, and set to music. Or the most beautifully animated film you’ve ever seen, masterminded by one of the most revered artists of all time, except . . . you are in it. Your skin, your hair, and your breath itself have all been replaced by golden grasses, waves on water, swirling stars. Lest you forget, you are made of star stuff; it seems only fitting to experience yourself again in your natural state.
The Stuff of Stars
As I entered the featured exhibit space in the Great Hall of the RiverCenter, the stars from Vincent van Gogh’s famous spiraling, sparkling night skies were projected en masse onto every surface of the vast room. Within moments, spinning celestial bodies gave way to full-surround views of Starry Night over the Rhône, Van Gogh’s portrayal of a bridge in Arles, France—a breathtakingly romantic scene one would never wish to leave. The walls and floor, consumed by fingers of light reflected across water, had virtually vanished. I was standing outdoors, experiencing a shimmering vista on the other side of the world, in 1888.
Still adapting to my new surroundings, my gaze fell next on the handful of silent observers already in the space: an older couple sitting on a bench in the far corner; a mother, stargazing; and her ten-year-old son, unable to stop his feet from dancing. He lifted off the ground in synchrony with a pulsing string chorus that soon settled softly into ambient jazz, the perfect moody partner for Van Gogh’s famously reflective river view. Every bold stroke and bead of paint could be seen, larger than life; every deeply vibrant color was felt. I took a few steps further into this strangely familiar world. I think we know Van Gogh more than we realize.
Indigo light shifted again with the lilting instrumentals—piped in just loud enough to be felt in your naval and to hug, not hurt, your ears. With a frenzy of broad brushstrokes set to music, the room transformed again into a gallery of the artist’s most recognizable portraits, each face filling the space from floor to ceiling. Soft but weary eyes. Creased skin. Worn clothing. Hats. Beards. Ears. There was barely time to take all the faces in before they bled out of focus and morphed, each one, into one of Vincent’s still life paintings, canvassed and framed: Still Life with Irises, vases filled with his iconic sunflowers, dozens of other arrangements splashing bold reds, riots of violet, and warm whites.
When a heart-pounding syncopated rhythm played by a string orchestra began cueing a new moment (think the intro to Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”), and when Vincent’s flowers freed themselves from their canvases and began to grow, surge, sweep, and swirl across the walls and under my very feet, I was utterly overcome. I gave it all up. I stood there, never more alive, as brilliant bouquets washed over every inch of me, inside and out. And I wondered if anyone else in the room was sobbing. Just sobbing.
I did start to worry, Oh no, am I just going to be crying through the whole thing? Well, so what if I did? The music absorbed any small sounds I was making and my wet face blended right into the glistening artwork. It felt safe to be in the flow of a profound new experience.
Figures in a Landscape
I fell in love with Vincent’s paintings all over again. But more surprisingly, and totally unexpectedly, I felt deeply connected to the people who were inside that immersive experience with me. No words required, I shared moment after amazing moment with the strangers in that room. We were in the collective Awe. It felt rarefied and precious.
Inspired by the people standing stock still or moving in slow motion around me, I got swept up in creating some art moments of my own. Photos and videos are indeed allowed, and I delighted in capturing the ways in which the other visitors continued to become part of Vincent’s work—as figures, for instance, in the foreground of a pastoral French landscape, or integrated right into the furious renderings of dense green pasture. No one was ever in the way of my view. They were a perfect part of it.
At one point, a trio of visitors relaxing on a bench unwittingly became customers gathered at Cafe Terrace at Night. A new mother, with young babe in arms, stood in one corner of the room for an entire hour and turned and watched, and turned and watched the sky moving by, in between kissing her child.
Music & Movement
A sublimely curated soundtrack enhanced this stunning showcase of an artist’s prolific and shockingly short career—a mere 10 years. The musical compositions, like the artwork, were evocative. Raw. Tender. Bleak. Buoyant. Songs ranged from muted trumpet-driven jazz, casting a sensual mood across magical waters, to ambient cinematic soundscapes in no hurry and filled with the space demanded by a vast nautical scene, to symphonic arrangements of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” and Don McLean’s “Vincent.” Piano-driven selections echoed twinkling stars and misty memories. Soprano violins repeated a rising triplet arpeggio that lifted my heart into my throat. A young couple and two small girls in a wagon entered the exhibit hall. The girls, in sundresses, were immediately at play, leap-frogging across the almond-blossom mosaic at their feet, reframing the sadness of a lingering minor chord as a hopeful song.
The transitions from vista to vista keep you on your toes. Paintings continually dissolve, evolve, or resolve into one another to reveal the next unpredicted moment. Swaths of night are punctuated by an occasional quote scribed in cursive across the wall, or by a singular voice intoning a theme from the artist’s life or career—sometimes in English, sometimes in French or Dutch.
There are also moments when small elements of the masterworks before you become animated—a flock of birds drifts dreamlike above a still horizon; windmills turn across the landscape of a gray day; a shadow pulses through the room, like a glitch in the Matrix, a wrinkle in time; and in one vivid moment overtaken by the artist’s somber self-portraits, Vincent’s eyes blink at you, and his being feels close.
Before you reach the main room with “the good stuff,” the exhibit offers an introductory passage—a winding series of panels that sketch the story of Van Gogh’s life, including his stop-and-start journey as a painter, his bouts of depression and self doubt, his yearning to show his true colors through his work when his “disagreeable” personality failed to do so, and the deep bond he shared with his brother, Theo van Gogh, whose financial and emotional support was unrivaled.
Reading through the timeline of events alongside passages from Van Gogh’s own writings felt, at first, like an obligation. I was antsy to get on with it and into the main exhibition room. But having come out the other side, I recommend sticking with it and reading them all. What I learned (and relearned) about the artist in that first room served to deepen the images I would experience in the main hall, creating a richer appreciation for his brief journey, lasting only 37 years, on the planet (1853–1890). These immersive stories of his artwork were etched with the stories of his struggles, an enduring brotherly bond, and his truly unique perspective on the beauty of the natural world.
I stayed and gawked for two hours, and for that entire time I was given the luxury of being present. A past and a future gone is a gift.
Go. Stay for a few cycles if you have the time; no one there is going to be rushing you along. Experience each amazing sequence from a multitude of vantage points. Bring your kids in a wagon. Bring your grandmother in a wheelchair. Bask in the music. And allow yourself to be overtaken by flowers. Not a bad way to go.
Ticket prices are $44 Friday through Sunday and $34 Monday through Thursday. Reserve tickets in advance at VanGoghQuadCities.com.