It was like entering a futuristic cave, where a culture’s history washes over visitors in a ceremony of initiation, making it a pleasurable sensation of assimilating its distinctive perspective on the world. It was dark when we entered, but only momentarily, before a feast of colours cascaded, as if from nowhere, dappling faces and surfaces around us, before coalescing into something recognisable: the pictures created by Vincent van Gogh, but Van Gogh as never seen before.
On our way to the Istanbul Modern during this, our second visit in less than a year to the Queen of Cities, a gigantic poster with one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits emblazoned on it, had caught our eye on the adjacent building. ‘Van Gogh Live!’ it proclaimed, and we were immediately intrigued. What could ‘live’ possibly mean in this context? For 15 Turkish lira (about R75) each we gained entrance to one of the most unusual art presentations I have ever witnessed. Beautiful music emanated from behind a partition luring visitors into a large, darkened space, and there we were, wide-eyed and stunned into stasis by the moving spectacle of Van Gogh’s paintings, transmuted into digitally engineered images.
The walls, it turned out, were gigantic screens – some flat, of wall-height and -length, others more than twenty feet high, and some in the shape of rectangular columns, unevenly distributed in this big, shed-like place, with data projectors trained on every screen from the ceiling. Involuntarily, the song that was popular a few decades ago – Don McLean’s Starry Starry Nights – came to mind as we relished this succession of Vincent’s paintings that unfolded before our enraptured eyes.
The image sequences on the asymmetrically-arranged screens were not synchronised or identical, but overlapped thematically, so that turning one’s head from one screen to the next afforded one a rich,virtually synaesthetic experience of visual and auditory consonance without identity.
The music had evidently been selected for its appropriateness. A variety of flower-paintings alternated with one another to the accompaniment of ballet music (I thought I recognized Tchaikovsky), and Vincent’s pictures of peasants – including The Potato Eaters and a variety of portraits of individuals with lines of hardship etched deep into their faces – were suffused with the sounds of Delibes’s poignant Flower Duet, as if to assuage their earthly sufferings in retrospect through this inspired sight-and-sound synthesis.
We sat on the carpet for longer than two hours, going through a process of rediscovering Van Gogh’s paintings in novel form – his many self-portraits, from those of a beardless Vincent to the one with a bandage over his ear (painted after he had cut it off in a fit of – what? – frustration, anger, jealousy? – when he and Gauguin had had a fight over a prostitute, if I recall correctly). In all of these self-portraits the overwhelming impression that one is left with is one of a suffering being – an impression that is reinforced by the appearance, on the screens, of Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, who managed to sell ONE of his paintings for him during his lifetime (again, if memory does not deceive).
The fact that we, together with thousands of other visitors to this unusual presentation – painting combined with contemporary art-technology – have been in a position to enjoy Vincent’s art as it has never been presented before (with those portentous crows coming eerily alive over the wheatfields in one of his most famous paintings), highlights the irony of this (by all accounts) unhappy man’s life. He created so much beauty, and yet he endured dismal poverty and suffered much – not least on behalf of others, whose plight he regarded as being so much worse than his own. And today his paintings sell for millions of dollars each.
Not that Vincent would have placed monetary value on his paintings – the sheer delight that he found in the subjects of his paintings is documented in his letters to Theo, and the vibrancy of his colours addressed one forcefully in projected painting after painting – colours that the Victorian society in which he lived was evidently not ready for. A world that was not – as Don McLean sings – made for one as ‘beautiful’ as he.
This experience was quite overwhelming; so much so that it took us some time before we felt ready to talk about ıt as we made our way from Van Gogh Live! to the Istanbul Modern next door. But even before we got there we agreed that it would be best to postpone that visit to the next day, lest it turn out to be an anticlimax after such a beauty-overload.