A Starry Night Over the Bay: Reviewing San Francisco’s Immersive Van Gogh Experience

By Ethan Chen

I remember gazing, stargazing, at “Starry Night Over the Rhône” within a de Young hall. Forming rich canyons of oil paints, Van Gogh’s impasto captivated me, transporting me to the banks of the Rhône. It was as if I could hear the river’s cadenced ripples over the city’s bustling night song. In my mind, I stood not under the gallery’s fluorescent spotlights, but under Arles’ glistening stars. Not surprisingly, as a Van Gogh enthusiast a decade later, I visited the “Van Gogh Exhibit: The Immersive Experience,” eager to once again view the world through Van Gogh’s eyes. 

After arriving at the exhibit, I noticed that “The Immersive Experience” resembled a cinema. It employed high resolution projectors to physicalize the movement exuding from Van Gogh’s pieces. Contrasting traditional art museums that encourage all to wander the gallery halls, this exhibit seated visitors within socially distanced circles. There, I watched saturated projections run on a thirty minute loop, while listening to the show’s diverse musical tracks, which ranged from grand orchestra symphonies to a belting Édith Piaf. This novel viewing experience, where modern technologies merged with century-old paintings, grasped my undivided attention. 

“The Immersive Experience” began with a scene of chaos, leaving me upright in my seat. Van Gogh’s sketched cicadas infested the dark room, while train whistles blew over static. Requiring my eyes to adjust to their vibrancy, bouquets of sunflowers blossomed from this disorder, a floral collage that gifted me a sense of warmth. A painted hand then traveled across the screens, silencing the spring concert to reveal a potato farm, still and muted in its colour palette. I’d embarked on a visual-audio roller coaster full of dramatic scene changes, and I was all in for the ride! 

Yet midway through the show, I felt that the digital renderings failed to capture the mesmerizing minutiae of Van Gogh’s work, the hallmark impasto indiscernible on screen. This exhibit, unlike de Young’s, felt hurried. Each painting appeared projected for just a brief moment. As a result, I found that although “The Immersive Experience” surrounded my body in a pixelated world of post-impressionism, providing for an abundance of “Insta-worthy” photographs, it struggled to immerse my mind. 

But the exhibit concluded with a glorious finale, a sensory-rich spectacle that compensated for the aforementioned shortcomings. Cymbals crashed over a triumphant brass chorus, cueing both the splatterings of virtual paints and the snaps of audience cameras. A tranquil piano solo took over, and the once radiant walls dimmed. The walls transitioned to a night peppered with celestial orbs, the portraits of Van Gogh reflecting upon the Rhône’s shimmering surface, an image of majesty.