While at first glance, a 9’ x 16’ room in a small home in southern France might not seem special, to the room’s occupant, the scratched tile floors, simple furniture, and baby-blue walls provided a quiet respite and the perfect setting and subject for three of the most significant and architecturally biographical paintings in history.
These paintings and their eclectic creator Vincent Van Gogh are celebrated in “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms.” After years of planning, these masterpieces have been united thanks to loans from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
For this historic first, the curatorial team faced the challenge of how to best depict the complex life of Van Gogh – an artist many people feel they already know – and the aspects that continue to place his Bedroom series among his most acclaimed work. Following a successful collaboration in 2014 with Bluecadet on its James Ensor exhibition, the Art Institute returned to the Emmy-winning firm. Along with the Art Institute’s team of world-class curators and conservators, Bluecadet created a strategic plan which eventually led to a series of interactive experiences carefully woven into the exhibition experience.
“Van Gogh’s paintings are iconic, and his life story is also extremely well known,” said Bluecadet’s founder Josh Goldblum. “With all of that in mind, we wanted to challenge visitors to go deeper, and to allow them to discover a more authentic, human side of Van Gogh’s life and work.”
The first of these experiences uses an abstracted life-sized recreation of the bedroom as a canvas for projections of animated sketches and quotes taken from Van Gogh’s personal letters. Those insights made it clear that, after years of a nomadic lifestyle with poor living conditions, this small but sunny room represented a sense of stability for the artist. In the exhibit, subtle light and ambient sound supplement the projections and help visitors better understand the personal struggles, and the hope represented by the single room. The projection captures the bright colors of Arles which inspired Van Gogh, and those colors artfully fade, representing the aging of the paintings as well as the artist’s tumultuous affairs.
This emotional experience sets the tone for the visitors’ first encounter with the three paintings. After seeing the originals, visitors are invited to dig deeper as they are introduced to an 18’ x 9’ projection allowing them to revel in the detail of the brushstrokes and further observe the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the three paintings. Flanking the projection are two interactive screens offering visitors “superpowers” to conduct a synchronized exploration of the paintings in a way that is intuitive yet future-forward. By pinching, zooming and panning, visitors can uncover findings made by the conservation team. For example, X-rays reveal how Van Gogh adapted his process for adding details. Further, a close look using light-raking technology reveals a vastly different topography – one painting is relatively smooth, while another shows peaks and valleys where paint has been built up. Size and deterioration of the paint confirms which painting was the original.
By design, these immersive digital experiences help tell Van Gogh’s story in very new ways, revealing the dreams and emotions of an accomplished artist and providing visitors with the power to investigate the Bedrooms like a curator or conservator.