Over the past few months I’ve been working with a team of entrepreneurs on an exhibition of the works of Vincent van Gogh. Sipping a double espresso the morning after the explosive opening of Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition, it’s time to share some initial thoughts and ideas about an extraordinary project.
First the “bad” news (at least to snobs): none of the 200+ works on display is an original painting by Van Gogh. For the exhibition his 200 most famous and beautiful works (selected by David Brooks) have been digitally restored and returned to their original colourfulness and liveliness. As you know (and the international press highlighted again this weekend) some of Van Gogh’s paintings have faded and lost colours because of the synthetic paint Van Gogh used. Using digital technologies and new insights, these colours have been restored, as can be seen in the image above and by playing with the slider on the website.
In addition to the 200 restored works, the exhibition shows seven 3D animations based on the works and letters of Van Gogh. A final twist are a selection of Van Gogh’s lost, stolen or destroyed works which are hidden at the end of the exhibition in the vaults of the exhibition space. The entire exhibition is accompanied by selected quotes from the letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother and others.
Then the good news, which only came to me in full force when I mingled with visitors yesterday and eavesdropped on their conversations and by talking extensively with curator David Brooks: there’s not a moment in the exhibition it is annoying the works are reproductions. In fact, it’s refreshing and pleasant these are not the real, multimillion Euro painting, but considerably less resplendent photographic prints. It allows visitors to focus on other things than the painting, price tag and grandiose frame. This creates room in the visitor experience for the story (or rather, stories) the exhibition tries to tell. These stories are the main power and – based on my experiences – what the audience really appreciates.
- The story of Van Gogh’s life, as told in his own words using quotes from his letters.
- The story of the development of an artist and his quest for perfection
- Individual stories (“anecdotes”) told with 3D animations based on his works and letters.
- Stories of suspense, crime and loss around the lost, stolen and destroyed works.
- The story of paint, colours, the decay of artworks over time and the process of restoring these colours.
- The (difficult) story of real works versus reproductions, which I will elaborate upon in an upcoming post on the Future of Museums blog.
Every museum and every exhibition tells a story. By taking away all the ‘glamour’ of the real thing in Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition, this exhibition manages to shine a new light on a world-famous artist and his works. Stories surface more easily and I’ve heard visitors tell them to each other, read them out loud, comment on them and – quite often – be surprised and amazed by them. More than once at the end of the exhibition I’ve head people comment their opinion about Vincent van Gogh as an artist and person had changed in a positive way.
When we thought about a payoff for the exhibition months ago, we naively fell for “Van Gogh comes alive”. Walking through the exhibition yesterday and seeing the reactions of the audience, I think the payoff may have been more spot-on than the marketing-value hints. I’m curious to see how the exhibition will develop, and what other people think about this approach to art. For now, it has strengthened my belief that the story is more important than the works on display, and the way it is told makes an exhibition great.
Image: Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom (1890) in the colours of the painting today, and digitally restored version. Especially notice the pink in the flower buds, which has disappeared in the painting.
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