There have been a lot of immersion experiences based on the work of my favourite painter, Vincent Van Gogh. Apparently these were inspired by an episode of Emily in Paris where the characters visit an immersive Van Gogh exhibit.
There have been so many immersive exhibits and experiences with very similar sounding names that many people, including myself, have ended up booking tickets to the wrong show. In the UK these are called Van Gogh Alive and Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.
Alas, I ended up going to both. One is more expensive, but definitely better than the other. Here are my thoughts on both so you can decide for yourself which one, if either, you would like to immerse yourself in:
Van Gogh Alive
Van Gogh Alive was created by Melbourne-based company Grande Experiences and we visited the one in Kensington Gardens held in a large marquee. This exhibition runs in London between 4 June and 26 September, with adult tickets costing £29 per person. It is then moving up to Greater Manchester between 22 October and 23 January 2022, with adult tickets costing £23.50 per person.
Seeing how large the marquee was on the outside, I was expecting the exhibition to be massive. When we walked in, we saw a busy café and a gift shop. There was a blossom tree near the entrance into the exhibition, based on Van Gogh’s “Almond Blossom” painting and I was anticipating things to be really good.
Van Gogh made his “Almond Blossom” painting as a gift for his newborn nephew and it is one of the most cherished paintings by the Van Gogh family. “Almond Blossom” was never sold by Van Gogh’s sister in law and is displayed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The first room was the interpretive area, providing information about the exhibition, Van Gogh’s life, and insights into some of his work. When we visited, this area was really busy, so we quickly bypassed and walked through. We already visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam which had similar information – and to be honest – I was eager to get to the main immersive event.
Bedroom in Arles
Before entering the main projection room, there was a 3D replica of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles”. It turns out that the room was actually oddly shaped, and it was painted as such, and also re-created in the 3D replica.
The paintings on the wall are one of the few times Van Gogh shows his own paintings within a painting. There are three versions of this painting, each one showing different paintings over the bed. This 3D replica appears to be the first version.
The sensory gallery
This was the main event. We heard classical music playing before we entered this large dark room. There were many screens and walls dotted around, each showing different parts of famous paintings or quotations from the painter. People were sitting on the floor or standing to the side to view the projections on the screens and floor.
The projections changed in tempo with the music, making it more dramatic and moving. As each song played it appeared to follow a theme. Themes like landscapes and fields, people, trees and flowers, stars, portraits, fruits and flowers etc. It was nice to see and hear, and we sat on the floor passively watching, taking it all in.
It was interesting seeing paintings (or parts of paintings) grouped together to follow the theme that this part of the music set. The classical music chosen was quite stereotypical though.
One screen showed a quotation about friends, and was accompanied by people from various paintings who I believe weren’t actually Van Gogh’s friends but subjects for his paintings. Interestingly, I saw a portrait that I had never seen before: one where Van Gogh’s head is completely shaven.
I appreciated that some of the paintings were animated: there were moving clouds to show a windy day, falling rain to show drizzling weather, colours mixing together, and shooting stars amongst a backdrop of a beautiful starry night.
The last sensory room was a room full of sunflowers with mirrors and lights. This room had the potential to be quite magical, but it was a tiny room with queues of people waiting to enter, so we felt more rushed than in a magical sunflower field.
Would I recommend
Though the venue looked large on the outside, it appeared as if the café and shop are bigger than the actual exhibition itself, which was quite disappointing. The experience was ok. I feel we must have booked at a popular time, as there were so many people in the main exhibition room that they stood inconveniently in front of screens or sat on the floor where the floor projections were.
I expected it to be more immersive, with floor to ceiling projections, or even more projections on the floor. I expected we were to walk through a long corridor and be taken on a journey leading into different rooms, each following a theme of paintings or having a 3D replica of some of Van Gogh’s famous paintings.
Rather, it was just one big room with projections of paintings. It was nice to see paintings grouped together with animations and classical music, but for the price I felt it was quite short and not all too immersive.
Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience
This exhibition was created by Brussels-based company, Exhibition Hub. We visited the one in Shoreditch held in a large stable building. This exhibition runs in London between July 2021 and February 2022, with standard adult tickets costing £20/ £25 per person depending on weekday or weekend visit. VIP adult tickets are then £32/ £40 depending on weekday or weekend visit, which includes entry to the exhibition, online access to Van Gogh’s “studio”, entry to VR experiences with skip-the-line, and a “Starry Night” poster.
This exhibition is also showing in York and Leicester until December 2021, with standard adult tickets costing £13 per person. The VR experience is an extra £3 per person in York or Leicester, and is not included in the standard ticket price, and there is no reservation possible.
Van Gogh Online Studio
Prior to your booked event, if you purchased VIP tickets, then you will be emailed a link to Van Gogh’s online studio. This is an online portal where you can view paintings in 360 degrees environment and learn a bit more about them. It was interesting and a good indicator to what the VR experience might be like. Definitely worth a look if you get the VIP tickets.
We would have missed the entrance if it weren’t for the brightly coloured doors. As you are greeted by staff, you are invited to drink some Japanese green tea, presumably to tie in with Van Gogh’s Japanese print inspiration. As you walk through, walls of massive 3D sunflowers welcome you – I was super excited.
Before the main immersive event, there were exhibits providing interesting information about the artist or various groups or styles of paintings. These are various sunflower paintings, of which there were 11 in total. One of the versions has 30 different shades of yellow! Van Gogh painted sunflowers in all the stages of the flower’s life cycle. And at Van Gogh’s funeral the casket had yellow flowers, and sunflowers were planted on his grave.
The next exhibit was of vases and other flowers, such as irises and roses. Interestingly, the colours in the paintings we see today are not the ones that Van Gogh used. The violet irises were originally blue and the white rose petals were originally red. There was a large 3D vase imbedded in the wall and projections of flowers changed in front of your eyes, with each projection being a vase of flowers from a painting. It was mesmerising to watch.
These are the painter’s five most expensive paintings. It’s sad to know that Van Gogh struggled with his mental health, and was unknown and unrecognised during his lifetime. Yet he is one of the world’s most famous painters and his paintings have sold for a lot of money. “Portrait du Docteur Gachet”, the painting on the right of Van Gogh’s homeopathic doctor, sold for $82.5m in 1990.
I was uncertain what this 3D concoction was at first – you stand on a platform and view the 3D pieces come together in 2D. This was the influence of Japanese prints and woodcuts, paintings like “Almond Blossom” and “Bridge in the Rain”.
Bedroom in Arles
Next was another 3D display of “Bedroom in Arles”, this one appears to be Van Gogh’s third version.
“The Vestibule” was painted during Van Gogh’s stay in an asylum. This is the entrance hall. The artist turned one room into a dedicated studio space and created 150 paintings and almost 100 drawings in one year.
This was my first Virtual Reality experience and it was amazing! You are set up with large goggles with headphones attached and sit on a swivel chair. My issues were that the goggles weren’t adjusted too tightly, so I ended up holding them up to put things in focus, it did the job though. At times I did hear other people and my legs weren’t long enough to touch the floor to swivel myself around so I did have issues seeing some things. But I would definitely love to experience this VR again.
As soon as the goggles are on, you are in Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles. You can see all around, as if you are actually in the famous bedroom. You then leave the room and walk down the stairs – this was when I realised I couldn’t turn myself around! The hubby felt this part was a little disorientating, as some people do with VR.
Then you leave the house and open the door into this beautiful field. I felt overwhelmed with sheer joy. Nature, fields, flowers, and sunlight all around you. It was magical. As you walk down the country road, here I was struggling to turn around again, you see snippets of paintings. You are literally experiencing the nature and field paintings one after the other as you continue walking along the country road.
As you continue walking, it becomes darker, and the quiet country road soon becomes a bustling street. You hear chatter and find yourself in a little town with more people around. Then you see the “Café Terrace at Night”.
You continue walking and you see a river and then the “Starry Night Over the Rhone”. It’s magical. You continue walking into the river and then you rise up into the night sky and you’re flying with the stars. Then all of a sudden, as you are floating, you are back in the bedroom in Arles – as if it was all a dream.
Then the main event. You walk into a large square room with projections on all walls and the floors. Van Gogh decorated deck chairs dot around the room, so you can adjust your chair to be upright or practically horizontal.
Soothing Japanese music plays as the walls transform into a minka house. It is as if you are sitting in a traditional Japanese house and new paintings and canvases have been hung up and unveiled in front of you.
Then the projections on the walls move you outside, as if you are sitting in nature and the blossoms from the trees are falling down on you.
There were so many projections creating a sense of peace and tranquillity. The classical music was so calming. Here you see a boat floating along the river under the stars, moving from one end of the wall to the other. The music, projections, and animations were beautiful and peaceful – I was lost in time. I could have sat there for hours watching and listening to it replay.
Would I recommend
Definitely would recommend. I found the exhibits informative and interesting, focusing on different aspects and not just the history and life of Van Gogh – mainly because I’ve seen that all before in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. The 3D displays were really well done, I absolutely loved the VR experience, and the projections were so peaceful and relaxing.
The hubby felt the Van Gogh Alive (first immersive experience) was lazily executed and not worth the ticket price. He thought the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience (second immersive experience) was expensive but tried harder and was better executed. Essentially, you pay a premium to see these exhibitions in London. The hubby did enjoy the VR experience, even with the same goggle issues as me, and even considered getting VR afterwards.
I thought Van Gogh Alive (first immersive experience) was not as good, mainly because I thought I had booked tickets to see the second experience so there was a larger expectation gap. There were more people and it was held in a more touristy area so the experience itself was not as relaxed.
I thought the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience (second immersive experience) was what I wanted. It was a lot quieter so there were fewer people (and heads) obstructing the projections, making the experience definitely more immersive. I was in a tranquil state and definitely in my happy place taking everything in. The shop was also quieter and had some decent finds too. The VR was good, even with the goggle issues – definitely worth a try.
If you are somewhat interested in Van Gogh but don’t want to spend as much money and not so keen on the VR experience, then the Van Gogh Alive (first immersive experience) is decent. Just be aware that it is in a more touristy area and therefore there will be more people obstructing your view of the projections.