What if you could live inside a painting? It’s a question I often ask myself as a writer and amateur artist. Seeing a famous painting in person is one thing, but what would it be like to dive in and live among those hues and brushstrokes? After seeing Loving Vincent last year, a film using oil paint animation to mimic the style of Vincent van Gogh, I was convinced that was the closest I would get to seeing his paintings actually come to life.
That all changed when I got the chance to visit the Atelier des Lumières this past week. Located in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, this former iron foundry was discovered by President of Culturespaces, Bruno Monnier, in 2014.
After a series of major renovations, the transformed space opened as a Digital Art Centre in April 2018. Using a series of projectors, artwork, animations, and films can cover every surface in the main viewing room. You aren’t simply watching what’s on screen once you step inside, you’re completely surrounded by it.
A year after its inception, the Atelier trained its lens on the iconic art of Vincent Van Gogh. Largely unrecognized during his own lifetime (1853-1890), the painter’s works are now known worldwide, and his unique style is credited with bridging the gap between the Impressionists and the style of artists that later emerged in the early 20th century. In the last decade of his life alone, Van Gogh produced a staggering 2,000 paintings.
In a presentation realized by Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto, and Massimiliano Siccardi, a montage of Van Gogh’s work is set to music (both modern and operatic) to chronicle the intense artistic vibrance of his short life. One piece flows into the next with gentle, sweeping transitions, especially showcasing the artist’s love of particular landscapes and color palettes.
Having seen several exhibitions of Van Gogh’s works over the years, the connectivity in his pieces was never so obvious as it was during this production. It’s one thing to see two paintings hung next to each other in a museum, but seeing one merge into the next so effortlessly grounds distinct works into a tangible timeline of Van Gogh’s life. Instead of the final product, it’s possible to imagine the diverse landscapes he visited, and how he chose to capture them.
My favorite moments of the production, however, were when viewers were shown more than a simple transition between similar works. For instance, when key features of a piece slowly appeared on the “canvas” or when the “camera” panned over multiple layers in a painting to give viewers the illusion of horizontal depth and perspective. It’s those moments that seem to take you inside of the art itself, especially when slightly different angles of each are projected onto a variety of viewing surfaces in the gallery space.
If I could offer one critique, the immersive potential of the exhibition is hurt a bit by the crowds. I estimated that around 200 people were in the viewing room at once. Visitors come and go frequently, and I was bumped into in the dark more than once. However, it’s the nature of a popular exhibit, and there isn’t much you can do about it but try to stay off to the side. In fact, it’s often sold out several days in advance, so I strongly suggest buying tickets online to avoid queuing when you get there. The exhibition runs until December 31st.
The highlight of the show is, of course, the moment Starry Night itself takes over the walls. The sky comes to life with stars that appear one brushstroke at a time, while a large yellow moon illuminates the blue-hued countryside. That incredibly iconic landscape is suddenly swirling all around you in a way it never has before.
To answer my earlier question: To live inside a painting, to live inside Starry Night, is absolutely magical.