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A Topsy-Turvy Van Gogh VR Experience

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PARIS — Have you ever thought of a painter’s palette as a topography? It’s a poetic idea, really, to imagine the paint as building a terrain of thought and feeling. Have you ever wanted to take a hike through that terrain or soar and swoop like a bird through the peaks and valleys of oil paint? In all honesty, I can’t say I have either, but now I have, thanks to the VR experience “La Palette de Van Gogh” at the Musée D’Orsay, a companion to Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, The Final Months, at the museum through February 4, 2024.

Yet another van Gogh show may seem like a bit of a snooze. Our favorite commodified artist has already been abused with all those virtual reality, excuse-to-take-mushrooms immersive experiences! Can’t they bring in the crowds another way?

Much to my surprise, the van Gogh exhibition during Paris Art Week this October was shoulder to shoulder with British, Dutch, French, and German tourists who most certainly were not in town for Art Basel Paris+. There’s something affirming about people outside of the art industry being overwhelmed with excitement at seeing these incredible paintings.

That’s the thing about van Gogh, particularly as this exhibition revealed — the luminosity and textural dexterity not only create a totalizing aesthetic experience but also encapsulate and critique the rapidly changing world of the late 19th century. It’s difficult to not be moved by these works: the crows in “Champ de blé aux Corbeaux” (1890) serving as harbingers of the uncertainty of modernity; the psychedelic rendering of “L’église d’Auvers-sur-Oise” (1890) hinting at the skewed and outsized influence of the Catholic Church. The looming solitude that industrialism wrought, captured in the singular shadowy figure amid a forest in “Sous-bois avec deux personnages” (1890), can be read as a metaphor, too, for the artist’s own torment. Van Gogh saw it all, and for this reason the experience of life was too much to bear.

“My plan is not to spare myself, not to avoid a lot of emotions or difficulties,” van Gogh wrote in 1883. “It’s a matter of relative indifference to me whether I live a long or a short time.” The Musée D’Orsay saw in the artist’s musings a virtual reality opportunity that would “add new depth and dimensions to the storytelling around their exhibitions” and help bring the work to new audiences, said a representative from Vive Arts. The virtual reality firm was brought in by the museum to produce “La Palette de Van Gogh,” directed by Gordon and Agnès Molia and co-produced by Lucid Realities, VIVE Arts, Musée d’Orsay, and the film production company Tournez S’il Vous Plaît.

As a matter of logistics, the central exhibition and the VR experience require two separate timed-entry tickets (the latter costs €6, or about $6.50). I initially tried to enter at 11am, when the room was full of people flailing their fingers around in the air. When I returned at 3:45pm, the first entry time available that day, I was alone.

The palette of Dr. Paul Gachet, van Gogh’s patron, appears in the VR experience.

The 10-minute immersive experience takes place in a side room, right off the exhibition’s entrance. A gracious greeter brings you to a stool and an Oculus headset and instructs that you will need your hands free.

The story begins with a disembodied hand (presumably yours) with wiggling red, blue, and yellow fingertips, motioning to move the handle to open a door into the drawing room of van Gogh’s closest patron, Dr. Paul Gachet, whose residence in Auvers-sur-Oise, just outside Paris, became a base for the painter in the last two months of his life. (I must confess, it took me 30 seconds for my hand to register in the purview, and this is not my first VR experience.) Gachet commissioned van Gogh to paint a portrait of his daughter, Marguerite, on June 27 and 28, 1890. In order to finish the painting, van Gogh requires a palette, supplied by Dr. Gachet — one of the doctor’s own, as he was an amateur painter himself. (The real palette, by the way, is in the collection of the Musée D’Orsay.)

“Mr. Vincent is gone. I can’t believe only a month ago he was standing right there, looking at me. That day I wore my most beautiful dress,” says the voice of Marguerite, who’ll be our guide through this experience. (Let’s get the suicide out of the way, shall we.) “He left the palette that my father lent him. I’m glad he did, it’s a souvenir of him,” she continues. The hand reappears. Touch the palette — WHOOSH, and now you’re inside, immersed in the paint’s peaks and valleys, rendered to mirror the agricultural terrain of the arrondissement, and this begins the tour through van Gogh’s paintings.

The experience ends with “Racines d’Arbes” (1890), van Gogh’s final painting.

The experience becomes a virtual tour of Auvers-sur-Oise through van Gogh’s work, including stops at the aforementioned “L’eglise,” where in a drone-like vantage point, the perspective scales the height of the bell tower and outlines the building’s structure. In truth, it can be a little nauseating. Then the blobs arrive, big, balloon-like blobs of red, blue, and green in the fields of Auvers that lead into the portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet himself. The crows of “Champ de blé” fly across the screen.

“Virtual reality allows audiences to connect with art and culture in a multidimensional way,” Vive Arts’s spokesperson said. “La Palette” shows “artworks and objects in a more dynamic and visceral way, personalizing [the viewer’s] experience.” For me, that dynamic meant motion. I felt myself trying to hang on to my stool as the velocity of the VR made my brain tell my body we were moving.

The experience ends with “Racines d’Arbes” (1890), van Gogh’s final painting, depicting tree roots growing into the embankment where I now found myself. You’re down in a hole, looking up at the sky, with tree roots digging down in the earth around you. It’s an entombment, a reminder that death is near.

“For his last painting, why did he want to transport us down into this earth?” asks Marguerite. “I don’t get it.” Girl, you took the words out of my mouth.

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