Swirling clouds in Violet Haze, selfies made in Virtual Daze

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Van Gogh’s inimitable floral still lifes are broadcast in a digital reel. Here, the iconic sunflower motif merges with the iris to form new blended compositions. (Photos Kelly Mac Conomy)

Alexandria, Virginia – Paintings have a life of their own that stems from the soul of the painter ~Vincent Van Gough

Just as vaccines have become more readily available to all and mask prescriptions have been lifted, so has the starry, starry world of blazing flowers, the blue and gray painted palette with swirling purple and azure skies, or the floral sun golden and amber cereal waves that Vincent came to enchant the DMV last summer, just when we needed him most.

The immersive Van Gogh experience, tucked away in the once empty rooms where his famous portraits now hang in a vacant big box space on Rhode Island Avenue NE, has been extended through March 2022.

Like modern cultural nicknames Cher, Madonna, Tupac or Kanye, Vincent needs no explanation. No last name required. Songs have been written about Van Gogh, including Don McLean’s 1971 song Vincent from the American Pie album inspired by Van Gogh’s 1889 painting The Starry Night.

The Starry Night painted by the Dutch Post-Impressionist in 1989 is one of the most well-known works of art in the universe. The painting depicts the view of Vincent from his room at the asylum in St-Rémy-de-Provence just before sunrise. The original is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Photo Kelly McConomy)

“Starry, Starry Night, Paint Your Palette Blue and Grey…” Released in 1972, just after McLean’s iconic American anthem, Vincent shot to the top of the charts. Fifty years later, the song remains as irresistible and poetic as the painting. Even the late rapper Tupac Shakur told the LA Times he found Vincent’s lyrics extremely moving, saying, “That’s how I want my songs to feel!”

Films about the legendary and tormented entertainer are well into the double digits. At Eternity’s Gate, starring Wilem Dafoe and written, directed and produced by artist Julian Schnabel, is among the best. It earned Dafoe an Oscar nomination. Dozens of actors have played Vincent in film and on stage: Kirk Douglas, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Andy Serkis, even director Martin Scorsese has in turn played Vincent in Akita Kurosawa’s Dreams.

Vincent Van Gough has been the artist for a decade frightened by the ongoing pandemic, political and social unrest, climatic extremes and corporate domination. Vincent’s paintings often depict conflict, alienation, loneliness, social isolation, torment, anxiety and depression.

Vincent Van Gogh Self-portrait Oil on canvas Paris 1887 (Photo Kelly MacConomy)

Yet no painter engenders a more pervasive admiration for his work, an undying tale of triumph over despair via the transitive power of nature, illuminating beauty in both the macrocosm and the panorama, exploring and harnessing the relentless pursuit of introspection expressed through self-portraiture. Vincent’s over 35 known self-portraits are selfies of a pre-Kodachrome/pre-digital world, not as prolific as Rembrandt’s 100, but a deep and revealing soul-searching of an anguished soul.

Vincent’s guests arrive at the Experience greeted by the check-in receptionist in a large, airy space. Enlarged wallpaper images of bouquets of sunflowers and Vincent’s starry sky adorn the walls for this first of many selfie photo ops. Masks are mandatory and temperatures are checked before entering the kaleidoscopic world of Vincent Van Gogh.

Technology is at the rendezvous throughout the experience. Different visual exchanges between Vincent’s factual biopic 411 and the virtual manipulation of his image as well as illusory fusions of his best-known works weave a backstory for the viewer to prepare for the big immersive explosion to come, while Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons’ distinctive voice guides you along the painter’s emotionally tortured lifeline.

Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles is recreated in 3D reality allowing viewers to enter the painting virtually, making it a popular spot for selfies and photo ops. (Photo Kelly McConomy)

“Amazing” doesn’t begin to do justice to the transition to interactive virtual imagery. A simple curtain of dark blue fabric secretes what awaits us a few steps from Vincent’s chronological descent into madness. Entering the immersive experience room is probably unlike anything else you’ve witnessed.

I imagine it’s a lot like the dread of being in space looking at Earth – otherworldly, explosive illumination enveloping a void. A black hole unfolding like a flower, revealing a lavish perceptual feast for the eyes and mind. Elements of Van Gogh’s images come to life: the crows, the boat, the stars! A painting seems to unfold and then fly away, revealing another below. You must see this.

Van Gogh greatly admired Japanese art and culture. Here, the imagery morphed into a kaleidoscopic swirl of Japanese fans, cherry blossoms, pagodas and Geisha performers. (Photo Kelly McConomy)

On leaving the large room of illuminations, barely empty and lined with portraits, Vincent aficionados arrive in a room lined from floor to ceiling with coloring pages. Guests can create their own tribute to Vincent or complete one of his masterpieces. A digital copier takes the image to project it onto the wall along with other recent Van Gough fakes.

A VR experience room follows, where for an additional $5, guests can experience Vincent’s world in Paris, Arles, and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, as well as his other locations. A gallery of oversized Van Goghs forms the finale of the experience – a large selfie spot – before entering the required gift shop.

Vincent’s mental health issues are well known – he mutilated his ear and eventually took his own life – but he also suffered from nightmares and hallucinations. Psychedelic projections mimicked his prolonged descent into madness. (Photo Kelly McConomy)

You’ll linger – not because you want a Starry Night umbrella (okay, so maybe you do), but because you don’t want the immersive Van Gogh experience to end. Leaving the room is disorienting and disturbing. Every instinct is to turn around and re-enter the great enlightenment experience. Almost everything thereafter is disappointing.

But, as with all exceptional things that far exceed your expectations by a mile, you simply come to terms with revisiting the memory of Vincent’s virtual daydreams, scrolling through countless Insta posts and the ever-hopeful promise of a return. I bet you’re all looking forward to Gogh!

The only way to know life is to love many things~Vincent Van Gogh

The lyrics of Vincent, Don McLean’s “flaming flowers that brilliantly blaze” come to life on two floors, from floor to ceiling, all around the large immersive experience room. (Photo Kelly McConomy)

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience DC continues into the new year at the 20,000 square foot space at the Rhode Island Center in northeast DC (turn left at McDonalds). Timed tickets from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. are sold out in advance every day, including holidays. Prices start at $19.90 for children or a four-person family pass (two adult and two child admissions for just $23 ($16.20 for each additional child). Adult admission is $36, with VIP tickets available at $54.60 adult and $34.90 child.

ICYMI: Yayoi Kusama and the infinite power of reflection


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