Arriving at the opening day of Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience earlier this week, I was amazed at how many cars were in the Halifax Exhibition Centre parking lot for a sleepy spring Monday morning. The hunger for Van Gogh—his works, his story, the feeling he imbues—is ravenous in Halifax: enough that, for a time, there were two digitally powered, big-as-an-IMAX-screen exhibits arriving in town this spring to project snippets of his paintings on walls and floors. (An excess of public confusion caused the duelling exhibits to combine forces to deliver the projection-based display, on view until June 26.)
He is, arguably, the most famous artist, full stop—so the collective belly-rumbling makes sense. Yet, while you doubtlessly know scenes like “Starry Night” (so famous it borders on ubiquitous), how much do you really know about the man who painted it? While Beyond Van Gogh breathlessly describes how it brings the viewer closer to Van Gogh’s work, forever mentioning its pixel counts and square footage, the show perhaps shines best in the litany of facts it lays you with upon entry.
Here, you can whet your appetite with a few tidbits of his life and work before seeing the supersized versions of his work:
- Van Gogh didn’t just paint landscapes. While “Starry Night” is one of the western world’s most instantly recognizable artworks, the painter routinely created self-portraits (because he couldn’t afford models) and scenes of his rented room in Paris.
- While an early-adulthood stint as a pastor didn’t pan out, themes of faith and belief are never far from the textured surface of a Van Gogh canvas. Nature was an endless inspiration for him because it embodied his spirituality.
- Yellow—in shades from butter to saffron—is considered by art historians to be Van Gogh’s favourite colour, representing hope.
- The scene “Starry Night” is a composite of a few different views that Van Gogh combined to create the finished painting. The sky portion is based on the view from the bedroom window at the asylum he checked himself into after a severe mental health crisis (the same one that saw him cut off his ear). The village below was the view from the asylum’s grounds. (While most patients were not allowed to roam freely, Van Gogh’s doctor suspected creating art would help him return to health and therefore allowed him more freedom for inspiration.)
- Van Gogh is considered one of the most significant figures in the Post-Impressionism movement. Alongside their predecessors, The Impressionist, Post-Impressionists were a group of 1800s artists looking to capture not just the literal scene before them, but how it combined with their feelings and memories. The symbolic, highly personal nature of Van Gogh’s work has, ironically, become a key factor in his universal appeal.