Meet Vincent van Gogh in his own words
‘Life is not long for anybody, and the problem is only to make something of it’
Vincent van Gogh
By far the strongest part of the new Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience is its audio guide. Using Vincent’s own words, taken mostly from his hundreds of letters to his brother Theo, it tells the tragic story of the Dutch artist with great sympathy. I didn’t know much before about Vincent except *that* incident with his ear.
The chronological narrative takes us through the six most important stages of Van Gogh’s life, from his Early Life (1853-1879) to his posthumous Success (1881-today). Here I learnt about how he became an artist, his relationships with his family, his intense friendship with Gaugin, his travels, his highs and his lows. I really felt I met the man behind the paintings – I could hear Theo’s concern for his unpredictable brother throughout; Vincent’s excited, urgent demands for paint as he tried to capture the short blossom season In The South (1888), and his weary tone as he describes the view through the bars at Arles asylum in Illness & Creativity (1889-1890).
I liked how sensitively his breakdown, hospitalisation, and death were handled. The theatrical shadow show of his arguments with Gaugin and his subsequent breakdown stays just the right side of dramatic. Even at his worst, we hear Vincent had hope that his work would keep him going, and his love of nature and the outdoors shines through. In contrast I found the documentary in the final room, Success (1881-today), had a rather clumsy focus on the astronomical sums van Gogh’s works now sell for at auction.
The audio guide frustratingly lags behind your location, but is worth persevering with. And with hardly any text in the exhibition, you really do need the audio guide to get the best from your visit.
How immersive is the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience?
Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience pitches itself as so immersive that it’s like stepping inside one of his paintings. Immersive is such a buzz word these days that it’s applied to almost anything with some props. This recreation of Vincent’s bedroom is by far the most successful immersive part. Vincent proudly decorated his bedroom the way he wanted, placing a scarlet red blanket on his solid furniture and hanging his own pictures on the violet walls. I’m sure selfies from this spot will grace many an instagram feed, my own included.
The rest of the exhibition I would describe as atmospheric, rather than immersive. In the Emerging Artist sections (1880-1885 and 1886-1887), tables and chairs are set up to resemble the cafes Vincent frequented, whilst In The South there’s a large haystack to sit on and a two story high exterior of the yellow house. You can’t step inside the house, only edge around it to watch films through its windows.
Unfortunately for families, interactivity is limited. All the cafe props are firmly stuck down, meaning there is nothing for little hands to do, except stroke the plastic potatoes. The microscope to ‘study’ Vincent’s paintings under is fixed in place, and the images move in a set arc, meaning it’s impossible to see most of them. The digital screens give little information beyond a swipe through images, or a zoom in. The gesture recognition painting interactive responded to only one member of our group. And I was underwhelmed by the giant video screen animations of Van Gogh’s painting in Early Life (1853-1879) – although perhaps my trip to the whizzy Van Gogh show at Atelier des Lumières has spoilt me.
Is the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience suitable for children?
Parts of Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience will work for children. You can touch everything, even the (replica) paintings, and the bold colours throughout make it visually appealing. There’s a special family audio guide, if your child has the attention span for one – it’s aimed at ages 8-12. And the inspired can draw at a self-portrait sketching station, with mirrors on easels. But with limited interactivity I think younger children will lose interest quickly. There is the risk of this type of exhibition turning into a selfie factory. Fortunately, Meet Vincent is transformed by its audio guide into a powerful, sensitive introduction to van Gogh’s life which works best for adults and older children.
Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience runs at the Southbank until 21 May 2020. Open Sunday to Wednesdays 10am-6pm and Thursdays to Sundays 10am-10pm.
Pre-booked exhibition tickets cost from £16.50 adults (age 12+), £14.50 seniors, £12.50 child (3-12), FREE under 3s. Weekend ticket + £2 each; £1.50 booking fee per transaction. Tickets purchased on the door are charged at a higher rate.
For more information and to book visit https://meetvincent.com/london
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