Reflections on the Immersive Van Gogh Experience
Recently I visited the Van Gogh immersive experience in Nashville with my wife Jacelyn. We loved it. Then I went a second time with the team I work with and I loved it all over it again. They were both unique experiences. The externals were the same, but internally I processed the visits very differently. The first time through, Jacelyn and I were captivated by the multi-medium, multi-sensory experience. The beauty of Van Gogh’s paintings, animated and set to sound, was wonderful–colors and tones swirling around us, gently telling a troubled story of a brilliant artist. I went home and began to expand on my cursory knowledge of Van Gogh’s body of work and life arc. I read letters he had written, gazed at his paintings, read the cold, staccato facts of his life and listened. I listened to his words and canvases for themes, hopes, fears. We’re storytelling creatures. Meaning makers. Humans intrinsically ask “why” and “how” questions when engaging in “whos” and “whats.” So, Van Gogh began to work on me, and the thought that started to emerge from within was this: Does life imitate art (as Oscar Wilde proposed in the late 19th century AD) or does art imitate life (as Aristotle stated in 4th century BC)?
The reason I believe this question arose is because the meditation on Van Gogh awakened in me an empathy for him. For all that he was, Van Gogh was human. He had longings. Desires. Hopes. Passions. Insecurities. Strengths. Weaknesses. Fears. He was a sojourner, far from home, both relationally and later geographically. He knew heartache and beauty and through his art found a medium to express the experience of living in that tension. As brilliant as Van Gogh was, he never experienced commercial success, his life undone by choices that often were both tinged with sin and mercy. All of these things found a place in his 2000+ works of art.
Knowing these things, I entered the exhibition the second time with a newfound empathy and bewilderment of the man, Vincent Van Gogh. As I watched the screens move over a million pixels of his art in all different directions and listened to the overtures and melodies placed alongside, I smiled. And cried. And considered. And wondered: What if? What if Van Gogh could’ve leaned into the transformative grace of the austere religion he was reared in and attempted to follow at one point? What if Jesus was the clue to the creation Van Gogh so wonderfully adored and depicted? What if Van Gogh could’ve heard, seen, experienced the mercy of God in the face of Jesus through his family? How could his life have turned out? What if he could’ve held on for one more day?
At some point those kinds of questions become unhelpful – the “what ifs” – because what we have is the “whos” and “whats.” And art. Art helps with the why, but not in a formulaic way. Art is more mysterious than that. It forces you to look. To take it in. To meditate and to think. And if you let it, art can transform you. That can be for good or for bad, but one thing art isn’t, is static. There is no neutrality with art. Art is inextricably bound up in life, and life is expressed through art. They are bound together like body and spirit, mutually reliant upon one another.
Instead of an either/or, perhaps Johann Sebastian Bach captured it best: “It’s weird…my life has always imitated art, and my art has always imitated life.” Maybe it’s a both/and. A weird, often tragic, sometimes wonderful both/and, begging for the release of the tension it struggles to live in and express. A tension Van Gogh tried to resolve in destructive ways. A tension the Bible says ultimately will be resolved. So we wait, in faith.
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. — Romans 8:20-23