“Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul”
–Vincent by Don McLean
Known to the world as the artist who once cut off his ear, had a fondness for golden sunflowers and poured his entire soul into his works of art, Van Gogh’s remarkable paintings-a testament to his deep emotions- have moved the hearts of people for generations and stood the test of time.
How can a man, trapped in an inescapable depth of sorrow, produce such breathtaking work? A man, who channelled his entire soul onto a blank canvas, never receive the praise he deserved while he was still alive?
From 17th December 2022 to 9th April 2023, the mystery of Van Gogh’s life is unravelled to the public through the Van Gogh Alive Exhibition held in Pavilion Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur. Unlike traditional art exhibitions where paintings are hung delicately on walls for people to admire, this modern exhibition, which has toured countries in Europe and Asia, caters to the 21st century. As interactive learning has proven to be an effective method for people nowadays to absorb information easily, the immersive experience provides the opportunity to interact with both his artworks and life. Whether it is Van Gogh’s famous bedroom painting being brought to life with a physical reconstruction, or the elegant classical music that is being played in the background, or the dramatically large, lit up tiles that project his marvellous works in great detail, one is guaranteed to be transported back to the 19th century and view the world through the eyes of this notable artist. Perhaps, it is only through this that we can truly understand the mystery of his life.
By purchasing tickets that cost RM75 (or RM46 for early birds), people can visit the acclaimed exhibition that has garnered attention on social media platforms for its aesthetic designs. If you have so far only viewed snippets of the exhibition through TikTok videos, Instagram stories and posts, we now bring to you an in-depth depiction of the entire exhibition, from beginning till the end. So, immerse yourself in this article where we discuss the myriad of attractions that elevate the Van Gogh Alive Exhibition and bring his works to life!
Almond Blossom Mural
If the thought crossed your mind that this painting is oddly similar to JVKE’s album covers, you aren’t the only one! In actual fact, this is a famous Japanese styled painting by Van Gogh who was inspired by traditional Japanese printing art. His attempt to paint this reveals his adventurous spirit to learn about the various art styles and open mind in exploring other cultures.
Right before visitors enter the exhibition, a grand mural of Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom greets them at the wall beside the entrance. The blossom, a symbol of a new life or beginning, marked the start of the exhibition, or metaphorically, the life of his newborn nephew. This painting is considered to be one of, if not the most meaningful painting dedicated by Van Gogh to his family because it was gifted during the birth of his brother’s child.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors walk into a brightly lit room filled with an abundance of artificial sunflowers and reflections of them. Call it a pleasant surprise, because many are stopped in their tracks as they take in this stunning view of sunflowers that fill the room, adjusting their eyes to the bright yellow. As both the walls and ceiling of the room are covered in mirrors, the innumerable sunflowers produced as an illusion portray the infinite love and appreciation Van Gogh had for the sunflowers. The prominent Sunflowers painting by him also magnifies his deep admiration for the flower; evident by its colour tones and his study of it in great detail. As an artist who commonly paints vibrant, scenic views of nature, there is no doubt that this particular painting stands out among the rest because of its single colour shade; yellow. Despite the lack of vibrant colours such as blue and green that typically play important roles in his nature paintings, Van Gogh allows the yellow sunflowers to have their moment under the spotlight, commanding the centre of attention in all its bright glory. Interestingly, Van Gogh actually challenged himself to paint this by only using three shades of yellow, which again, proves his amazing artistic ability and skill.
It is common, nowadays, to take mirror selfies whenever the opportunity presents itself. This situation is no different. Visitors can take mirror selfies with the golden sunflowers at the exhibition whilst appreciating its radiant colour which brightens pictures and provides it with an appealing aesthetic. Van Gogh would be delighted to know that despite the centuries that have passed since his death, the sunflowers still bring light into the lives of people today and are still appreciated, just like his paintings.
“The sunflower is mine, in a way.”
“How lovely yellow is! It stands for the sun.”
The above quotes by Van Gogh are listed on a wall painted in bright yellow in the next section of the exhibition; it smoothly transitions from the sunflowers, an important part of his life, into the other aspects of Van Gogh’s life.
Physical Reconstruction of Van Gogh’s Bedroom Painting
Ever wondered what Van Gogh’s famous bedroom would have looked like in real life? Well, this exhibition brings the painting to life with its real life construction of the bedroom! From the self portraits on the wall to the position of the furniture in the room, meticulous planning and attention to detail is evident in this physical bedroom; a tribute to the original works of Van Gogh.
When Van Gogh looked back on his past works, he considered this painting of the bedroom as one of his best. Although it may seem like a fairly simple painting that uses primary colours, with no fancy attempt to enhance the appearance of the objects in the room, these choices were made deliberately by the artist himself. For instance, Van Gogh decided to keep the objects in the bedroom 2D by excluding its shadows in order to achieve the style of a Japanese print, similar to his Almond Blossom painting. His intriguing thoughts behind paintings is a key attribute of his unique works.
With the understanding of what this bedroom painting meant to Van Gogh, visitors can fully appreciate this particular section of the exhibition. It is one thing to admire the bedroom painting and read about its background story with the eyes, but a whole other experience of immersing yourself in the physical resemblance of the bedroom itself because it is as if you live in the painting. Thus, besides the fun pictures that visitors can capture at this section of the exhibition, they can also shift their perspective; from viewing the painting in a manner as intended by the artist to placing themselves in the shoes of the artist himself.
Origins of the Paintings
After crossing the room filled with sunflowers and mirrors, visitors could find a vast area with drawings of Van Gogh and his infamous quotes on the walls, along with a brief introduction of the reputable artist. There were also a few pillars around the space, which depicted or gave a short summary of Van Gogh’s life through his paintings. Some of the prevalent paintings featured were Starry Night Over The Rhône, Café Terrace at Night and Portrait of Eugene Boch.
The paintings came along with a little backstory about it; on how Van Gogh was inspired by Japanese art and most of his paintings were influenced by it, especially The Courtesan(after Eisen) or how he simply loved the colour yellow and drew the flowers that representedit, Sunflowers.
Through the pillars, visitors could learn about Van Gogh’s journey in life through art. His closest confidant was undoubtedly his younger brother Theo, whom he wrote letters to-describing his art and his state of life. Van Gogh was said to have to written over 2000 letters, of which 903 have been compiled into a book.
Right next to the life-size imitation of Van Gogh’s The Bedroom and after the pillars featuring a few of Van Gogh’s most famous works, a few easels were arranged in front of a slide show that provided a step-by-step guide on drawing The Bedroom or The Starry Night. Visitors could pick up a pen or a pencil and draw on the paper supplied according to the guide for about 3 to 4 minutes. For those inspired by and drawn to art, it was delightful to get a glimpse of the process of drawing a Van Gogh painting.
This experience which encompassed the senses of sight, sound and scent was undoubtedly the star of the show. Beyond twinkling fairy lights and a black curtain, visitors were greeted by large, slide show panels which were lined up across the walls and reached the ceiling. The panel screens projected Van Gogh’s art throughout the phases of his life. Some of the paintings were animated, gliding across the screens to create a more realistic effect and attract the audience.
Along with Van Gogh’s renowned pieces, they were accompanied by excerpts from the letters written by the artist, mainly addressed to his brother, Theo. The artist’s quotes resonated with his paintings, leaving an impression on the audience.
On top of animated paintings and Van Gogh’s inner thoughts, soft, classical music played along as well; expressing the artist’s emotions by way of his paintings. Visitors milled around either sitting down to absorb the 40 minute multi-sensory experience or taking pictures of the paintings and quotes.
Interactive art – The Greatest Artist
Once exiting the 40 minute experience, visitors could shop at the gift shop for memorabilia of Van Gogh’s art, or were led next door for part two of the exhibition-The Greatest Artist. As its name suggests, this part of the exhibition is more interactive, with a talking Van Gogh welcoming the visitors, an AI self-portrait generator that makes your picture look like a painting and animated Van Gogh paintings hidden within holes along the wall. Sunflowers being the artist’s most favoured flower had another room dedicated to them, where if you held a lantern towards animated sunflowers, they would start moving and growing towards you.
The Life of Van Gogh through his Art
Nuenen and Antwerp (1883–1886)
Upon moving from Drenthe, Netherlands down to Nuenen, located in the south of the country where his parents lived, Van Gogh was not warmly received by his family and experienced some tension between them. Nevertheless, it did not stop him from living in this town (he later moved out of his parents’ home) for a couple more years because he was overcome with love for the scenery and people there. Still in the early stages of his painting career, Van Gogh took it upon himself to experiment with the effect of colours and work on many figure studies by carefully observing the people who lived in Nuenen, from passersby on the street to workers in the weaving mills.
A result of his diligent attitude was this newfound confidence as he gradually improved his artistic skills. Thus, Van Gogh challenged himself to paint this particular scene of a group of people eating potatoes and ensured that the message he wanted to convey was clear: evident by their rough, bony hands was their hard toil and labour to get by with the very potatoes they planted. A tough life it was that they lived, with the bare minimum to survive from day to day. In order to portray the harshness of their lives, Van Gogh used dark and cold earth colours, created deep shadows for a contrast effect between the darkness and the harsh yellow light and placed emphasis on the crooked imperfections of the scene. As the darkness in which the people live in is harshly exposed by the low hanging bulb above them, the painting conveys brutal honesty and raw emotion.To create a painting that clearly communicates a message in this manner is difficult, but at this point of his career, Van Gogh was eager to show off his artistic ability. Here is a quote displayed during this first phase of his life included in the immersive experience:
“An artist needn’t be a clergyman or a churchwarden, but he certainly must have a warm heart for his fellow men.”
Although this painting received criticism during the time, it is known to be one of Van Gogh’s most significant works. Not only does it convey the honest truth about the tough lives of the people, it also reflects the state of mind he was in. There is a possibility that his own financial matters could have influenced the painting style because at the time, he was financially dependent on his brother, Theo, as his paintings never sold well. As tensions grew between his brother and him, Van Gogh’s troubled emotions could have been expressed through the painting itself.
The other paintings produced by Van Gogh while he lived in Nuenen, which also use similar earth tones and are dull, clearly shows his perspective of the town when he lived there. Compared to his later works which heavily revolve around nature, these ones mostly comprise of buildings in the town.
After living in Nuenen for about two years, Van Gogh moved to Antwerp, Belgium where he enrolled in an art academy and joined a painting course conducted by Charles Verlat. Despite the frequent change of places he dwells in, one thing constant throughout was his eagerness to learn and improve. This trait of Van Gogh is an important factor that really unleashed his potential in the arts.
A common subject to paint during the classes he attended was the skeleton because anatomy commanded a great deal of attention and skill to draw. Van Gogh, an artist with a humorous personality, then painted this mysterious painting of the skull of a skeleton with a burning cigarette. There are many different interpretations for the meaning of this painting, which is not uncommon among the works of Van Gogh. It is a talent of his; to paint a scene expressed with his own personal emotion, yet it speaks to every person differently, or rather, connects to them on different wavelengths. However, during the period of time when Van Gogh drew this skull painting, his health was not in the pink. In fact, he had a poor diet (due to his financial instability as an artist, he mostly only had bread and water), was a pipe smoker and had dental problems. Once again, it is possible that his personal condition could have influenced the delivery and theme of the painting; in this case, health.
Having previously visited the city before, Van Gogh moved from Antwerp, Belgium to Paris. During this period, a progressive growth can be seen in Van Gogh, from his artworks to his career. In terms of his career, Van Gogh became more well known, partly due to his talent and active involvement in the arts scene. For example, he frequently held art exhibitions, socialised with artists such as John Peter Russell and started an art collection with his brother, Theo. However, moving to a new city did not solve the financial problems of Van Gogh. Although he still had little money, Van Gogh was optimistic and practical in the situation. As he could not afford to pay models to practise painting portraits, he decided to make himself the subject, thus the start of the era where many of his self portraits were created (around 35 of them). Contrary to popular belief, Van Gogh’s many self portraits were not products of his pride or self-obsession, but a solution to his tight financial situation. By this, it is clear that Van Gogh did not let even money stop him from improving himself. This is an important takeaway from his famous self portraits that should not be overlooked.
In terms of his artwork, there was a gradual change in the colours he used for his paintings. Compared to the dull, earth tones used in his paintings at Nuenen and Antwerp, Van Gogh started to experiment more with vibrant colours. Similar to the paintings below, many of Van Gogh’s work consisted of the scenery at the outskirts of Paris and random objects as subjects of his paintings such as books, flowers and fruit. By simplifying the subject of the photo, Van Gogh was able to venture and develop his art style, experimenting with different textures, brush strokes, and even observing the overall impact of increasing the colour yellow.
“I believe that the time will come when I too shall sell, but I am so far behind with you, and while I go on spending, I bring nothing in. Sometimes the thought of it saddens me.”
Contrary to the popular belief that Van Gogh did not sell any of his paintings, Arles is said to be a prolific period in his career. Yes, he did suffer from poverty and often had to borrow money from Theo, however Van Gogh did sell one painting that he worked on in Arles, The Red Vineyard. This was also when he was corresponding with fellow artists such as Paul Gauguin and Bernard, requesting Gauguin to come live with him in Arles.
While he only lived in Arles for 18 months, some of his most renowned paintings originated from the town in the South of France. It was there, where the infamous Bedroom in Arles came about. Van Gogh painted his bedroom as well as the building he stayed in, The Yellow House. The artist was enraptured by the countryside and it became his muse for so many other paintings, Langlois Bridge at Arles along with The Old Mill.
Even then, Van Gogh’s art continued to adapt- he carried on exploring various colours like ultramarine and mauve along with his beloved yellow. He painted one of his most breathtaking paintings here, Starry Night Over the Rhône; the painter certainly had a manner of drawing stars. “The café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime”. This, he writes, trying to express the impression that The Night Cafe left upon him through his painting. He goes on to say, “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.”
Gauguin does eventually come to stay with Van Gogh, however it proves to be disastrous for the both of them. It was a strained partnership, coming to an end when Van Gogh severed his left ear when he feared that Gauguin was planning to leave regardless of his threatening behaviour. Most of the accounts around here are quite hazy, with many versions of what truly transpiredbetween them. The townsfolk were convinced that he was mad, even going to the lengths of petitioning against him in staying there, calling the artist as ‘the red headed madman’. Although Van Gogh was residing at the hospital in Arles then, he was later on brought to an asylum close to Saint Remy.
Saint Remy (1889-1890)
“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”
Being in an asylum did not put a wrench in Van Gogh’s work. It seemed as though the only real thing keeping him alive were his paintings. During his time in Saint Remy, he produced his most revered painting to this day; The Starry Night. Numerous other pieces of art followed as well, The Wheat Field art series (which expressed the artist’s melancholiness), Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset (something he drew out of memory). He drew A Wheatfield with Cypresses, Lilacs, Irises and other wondrous flora from his walk around the gardens at the asylum.
Once he ran out of inspirations to draw from, Van Gogh started recreating his own works and some of other artists, such as Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Doré) and Millet’s The Sower. Theo, later on wrote to inform Van Gogh on the birth of his nephew, ‘As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you.’ Van Gogh, who was absolutely delighted with the birth of his nephew, writes, “I started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.”. Influenced by Japanese art, Van Gogh proceeded to come up with one of his heartwarming paintings, Almond Blossoms-the wallpaper of the room at the beginning of the exhibition.
To be nearer to his brother, Theo and his caretaker, Dr Paul Gachet, Van Gogh moves to Auvers-sur-Oise. Like an actor’s final bow or a runner’s final lap, Van Gogh’s last painting was speculated to be one of the two paintings of Daubigny’s Garden. He had a few uncompleted paintings in addition, such as Thatched Cottages by a Hill and Tree Roots.
“I will not live without love”
As time went by, Van Gogh became more depressed and tired of life. There is even an alleged claim that he tried ingesting yellow paint, in the hopes that it would make him feel better. Nevertheless, the tormented artist shot himself in late July, unable to carry on with life. His brother managed to be with him in his last moments, and the acclaimed artist’s last words were, “The sadness will last forever”.
Appreciating Vincent Van Gogh
It is quite apparent that Vincent Van Gogh was ahead of his time. Back then, there were very few people who could comprehend or appreciate his art. While there exists a myth that artists are tortured souls, it may just be true for Van Gogh. Later on, after his death, many doctors and experts have diagnosed the artist with the assumption that he may have suffered from psychosis or bipolar disorder. There has been many other speculations on what he was going through, but it was made clear that the Dutch artist had a mental illness.
Van Gogh’s paintings assuredly have a way of speaking to the viewer’s heart. As he declared in one of his letters, ‘I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say “he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’’. One may not fully comprehend what the artist is trying to convey, but the paintings are able to stop one’s thoughts altogether, just to gaze at it and soak in the intricacy of the painting. In a way, a painting is a glimpse of the artist’s point of view of life. Undoubtedly, Van Gogh was someone who had a romantic and passionate soul.
For those art enthusiasts and geeks, this exhibition is something of an eye-opener, on how we get to learn of Van Gogh’s thoughts and emotions through his letters to his brother. Take a pause from your hectic and bustling life, to engross yourself in art and culture once in a while. For those who feel it’s too late, fear no more, the exhibition has officially been extended up to 9th April 2023!
Written by: Caitlin & Poorani
Edited by: Priyanka