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New 'Beyond Van Gogh' immersive art exhibition captivates


In 1874, Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo about finding beauty where you can.

"Most people find too little beautiful," he wrote. 

Van Gogh, for his part, seemed to find beauty all around him and painted it -- wheat fields, flowers, peasants, even his own bedroom.

All of these elements come to life in a captivating new exhibition at the TCF Center, "Beyond Van Gogh." Digital projections of the van Gogh's paintings swirl, change and sweep visitors up in the Dutch painter's vision.

Created by Quebec-based Normal Productions, the exhibition -- which requires about an hour to go through; ticket entry is timed -- takes the natural elements in van Gogh's paintings and makes them interactive. Petals fall off branches in his famous "Almond Blossoms" painting, waves ripple in "The Starry Night Over the Rhone" and stars twinkle in "The Starry Night." In a series of his famous self-portraits, the eyes occasionally blink.

Art historian Fanny Curtat worked with creative director Mathieu St-Arnaud to tell van Gogh's story in a modern way. She said they wanted to go beyond the well-known dark details of van Gogh's life -- cutting off his own ear and living in poverty. Before he became a painter, van Gogh tried to become a preacher and art dealer, but failed at both.

"More than anything in life he wanted to have purpose and you can see that in his letters," said Curtat. "Ultimately all these failures fuel his art with his purpose."

The exhibition, one of the newest immersive Van Gogh experiences, is divided into three parts: an educational component in the beginning, that puts Van Gogh's life in context, often through letters with Theo; a small transition area; and then the main gallery. 

There, 300 van Gogh paintings come to life, often in a much larger scale, with plenty of room to spread out. Projectors shine the paintings on four main walls along with 3 small walls in the middle of the gallery; it's almost like watching a movie.

Even for those who may not be familiar with van Gogh's work will recognize some of his paintings, including "The Starry Night," "Sunflowers," "Cafe Terrace at Night" and "Wheatfield with crows."

"His vision of the world was filled with so much color and light," said Curtat.

Earlier paintings have more muted colors. It wasn't until van Gogh went to Paris and discovered the impressionist movement that he really embraced color, said Curtat.

"He saw a real power to colors," said Curtat. "The color yellow for him was symbolic almost -- it's the sun, strength, brotherhood."

And some of his most iconic paintings -- such as "The Starry Night"and "Almond Blossoms" -- were painted while van Gogh, struggling with his mental health, was in an asylum for one year in France.

"A lot of paintings through this period were watching through the window in the asylum," said Curtat.

Nature -- including flowers, branches and peasants in fields -- is a dominant theme in van Gogh's work.

"Nature, you can see with him, is transcendental," said Curat. "There's a real healing power to nature."

Even though van Gogh struggled -- he died by suicide in 1890 -- he never showed that in his art, said Curtat.

"That's not what he wanted to show people," said Curtat. "I'm hoping that people will see that and they'll connect with what he wanted them to see -- his vision, and these bright colors, and how beautiful and inspiring nature can be."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com