Last week, filled with childish anticipation, I flew an afternoon from work to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I had waited months for the chance to see the Immersive Van Gogh exhibition at Quai 36, in which the artist’s most famous works are transformed into giant animated projections.
Similar exhibitions produced by a number of different companies have sold all over the world; London currently has a Van Gogh alive exhibition presented at Kensington Gardens, with Van Gogh: the immersive exhibition opening scheduled for July. In the United States, immersive shows from diverse backgrounds will be presented in nearly 30 cities this year.
I’m no more a Van Gogh fan than the average art lover. I am in awe of the ferocity of his creativity – he made some 900 oil paintings in the short 10 years of his artistic career – and fascinated by his life: how he answered the call to be an artist , then lived and worked with such passion while also struggling with a mental illness, eventually committing suicide.
The idea of ââentering one of his dreamlike paintings fascinated me. Immersed in a 500,000 cubic foot space, I spent time in each of the three galleries, sitting cross-legged in a socially distant circle as I gazed at the digital blank canvas, observing works such as “Starry Night,” “The Bedroom” and “Sunflowers” were created line by color by shape.
Eventually the whole room was inundated with vibrant paint streaming down the walls and floors, me and everyone smack in the middle. It was fun, bewitching and magical.
Months ago when i started Hearing about the Van Gogh exhibition, it made me wonder about other works of art that I would like to live in for a day or a few hours. I started looking at art with a new question: “How would it be to enter this frame and join this world?” “
Depending on my mood, there were certain works that I would like to jump into just to interrupt the seamless narrative, putting myself in the middle of a story that didn’t expect or invite diversity due to the period. history or broader ideas of who is welcome where. Others that I would slip into with an armful of questions. If given the opportunity, I suspect that the painted worlds each of us might slip into would be determined not only by our curiosity, but also by what goes on in our own lives.
Of all Van Gogh’s paintings at the present time, I would dissolve most easily in “Noon – Rest from Work”, his 1890 interpretation of Jean-FranÃ§ois Millet’s 1866 painting “Noonday Rest”. Two harvesters sleep with their backs to a haystack in the middle of the afternoon. Their posture suggests total physical exhaustion. The woman is curled up in the straw bale, using her arm as a pillow, and the man is passed out on his back, his hat pushed forward to cover his eyes. Their blue clothes are almost the exact shade of the deep azure sky. In the background, a field animal grazes next to a work cart. The entire painting is a swirl of rich colors that exaggerates the glow of the afternoon sun.
I have always been strangely rocked by this painting. Perhaps this is due to the intensified color and brushstroke technique, which creates a dreamy, romanticized atmosphere and seems to elevate an ordinary scene of hard work and deserved rest.
This artistic overhaul of what we normally perceive as prosaic might invite us to reconsider the way we view our own attitudes towards work and rest. Many of us live in cultures that celebrate burning the wick at both ends, pushing our bodies into the ground for the sake of career advancement or ever-growing paychecks, or just because we have been trained to believe that being constantly busy equals our importance or relevance. To enhance an image of rest is to assert its value and its necessity. It is fascinating to know that Van Gogh finished this painting while he was in a period of heightened depression, during his year of asylum in Saint-RÃ©my de Provence. It was about a year after he cut his ear and about six months before he committed suicide.
As we live in this particular space between a closed world and an open world, I think there is a deep physical exhaustion that comes with figuring out how to cope with the weight of what we have been through over the past year. , while continuing to inhabit our lives with all the responsibilities still at hand. Tiptoeing through this golden haze of empty space of silence for a brief nap feels like a welcome invitation. Not an escape or an abandonment, but a recognition and an honor of rest.
Yet after a year from the lockdown, another painting I would appreciate awhile in would be âHip, Hip, Hurray!â by 19th-century Norwegian-Danish painter Peder Severin Kroyer. He was part of the Skagen Group, a colony of artists drawn to Denmark from all over Scandinavia, and this painting, completed in 1888, is based on a meeting at the home of Danish realist painter Michael Ancher.
The party is tightly gathered in a verdant alcove. There are open bottles of champagne and wine, and half-full glasses littered on a patterned tablecloth. At one end of the table, three smiling women and a child are caught in a shining frame of beaming sunshine; at the other, the men clink glasses with raised glasses. We have the impression of an eternal summer afternoon, where the light lingers until 9 p.m., and we easily forget that the day has to end.
I am drawn into this joyful painted reverie, anticipating my own gatherings with gratitude, yearning to keep all worries and concerns at bay for a simple afternoon of camaraderie, nature, sunshine and merriment. The painting resembles a radiant reminder that life’s treasures are often intangible and as fleeting as fleeting light. Something many of us have learned over the past year and a half.
And maybe out of a pure sense of hopeful camaraderie, I rubbed shoulders with the three gracious women in the magnificent 1980 oil painting “Women with Baskets, Fish and Crab” by Filipino artist Anita Magsaysay- Ho. The only female artist in the famous Filipino artist group known as the Thirteen Moderns, Magsaysay-Ho was known for her work that made Filipino women happily occupied in the midst of daily activities such as selling fruit, caring for chickens and repairing fishing nets. Women aware of the value of their life and their work.
The three women of “Women with Baskets, Fish and Crab” are depicted in the characteristic Magsaysay-Ho style, graceful and attractive, with elongated bodies, angular faces and long narrow necks. The women stand intimately next to each other, manipulating their brown woven baskets amid a table of glittering fish and crabs. They all wear short-sleeved white shirts and loose white handkerchiefs that frame their faces, caught in a glow of light. All three are as elegant and reserved as models who play relaxed during a photoshoot.
I am drawn to their postures, their quiet confidence and their dignity. It’s an image that contradicts our assumptions about what women in the market should look like and how they should feel. Society may want us to relegate these women to the fringes, but in this beautiful picture we have no choice but to be confronted with them in their presence. It’s tempting to want to get close to them and trade secrets.
Enuma Okoro is a columnist for FT Life & Arts
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