Venue: Atelier des Lumières, Rue Saint-Maur, Paris 11
It is a fresh spring morning in Paris. Not a cloud can be seen in the china blue sky. Along the Canal Saint-Martin, people are sitting out enjoying breakfast coffee and croissants in the unseasonably warm sunshine. It is a day for getting out and about. Definitely not a day for staying indoors.
But exceptions can offer unexpected opportunities. Outside the unobtrusive entrance of the Atelier des Lumières at 38 Rue Saint-Maur in the 11th arrondissement, long queues are forming for the option of quitting the daylight in exchange for an experience which will assail the senses in a riot of colour, music and creative genius.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Chemin-Vert foundry, owned by four generations of the Pichon family, was a major employer in the area. In 1933 it ceased iron production and was turned into a tool factory by the Martin family, who remain its present day owners. Now it has been transformed into a ground-breaking, innovative centre for digital art, employing cutting edge technology to bring the visual arts smack bang into modern day consciousness.
Inside its vast, gloomy interior, the old metals stairways and gantries, the cable rolls and lifting gear and circular tank of its previous existence have been lovingly retained. They lend an authentic, gritty realism to what has rapidly become a magnet for international tourists as well as local art lovers. At the end of this, its first year of operations, over a million people have passed through its cobbled courtyard entrance into a brave new world of wonder in the space beyond.
The current exhibition offers uncompromising, total immersion in a selection of fifty major works by Vincent Van Gogh. It has been specially created for the Atelier des Lumières as a showcase for the artist’s distinctive pictorial methods. Visitors filter into a huge space filled with pitch darkness and deafening sound. It is a disorientating experience, initially bombarding us with monochrome images of the foundry in its heyday then gradually replacing them with vivid daubs of thick paint which morph into detailed sketches, subtly underlining the meticulous early preparations employed by the great Dutch master.
Illuminated by the swirling light from 140 projectors and wrapped in an atmospheric soundtrack comprising classical and contemporary segments of jazz, rock, pop and original compositions, a succession of landmark moments from Van Gogh’s tormented artistic life come at us from all angles. They lead us deep into the mind, the spirit and the imagination of the artist, opening up thrilling new perspectives and contexts.
“Our goal is to invite the public to walk through the heart of the artwork”, says Gianfranco Ianuzzi, artistic director and co-director of the exhibition. “We wanted to express the soul of the painter, to illustrate his creative energy and to offer the most intense sensory experience to the public.
“The journey begins in the sun-drenched fields of wheat, then rapidly rewinds to his Protestant roots in northern Europe, where the colours are darker and the faces of the people are etched with poverty and hard labour. We follow him through the brief period he spent in Paris and from there to Provence in the south of France, where he discovered a new palette of colour and light. There the paintings became more intense and the paint was applied more thickly to the canvas.
“He worked frenetically and tirelessly to capture the moment, the places and the vibrant colours around him. This is why people love Van Gogh, because his work is inseparable from his life.”
Technology allows not only for us to experience the paintings themselves but to witness their virtual evolution. Above, below and around, great explosions of yellow light emerge and morph into the sun and stars of La Nuit Étoilée; we are made dizzy by the undulating movements of the corn surrounding Le Semeur (the sower); we promenade at a leisurely pace along a sun-drenched street towards The Yellow House. In turn the famous sunflowers emerge in giant, confrontational close relief, followed by a profusion of dark blue irises, the contorted trunks of the provençal olive groves, the lined, peasant faces of The Potato Eaters, and, repeatedly, the gaunt, staring profile of the man himself.
The climax approaches via Van Gogh’s final painting Le Champ de Blé aux Corbeaux (The Wheatfield with Crows). It presents a stark, fatalistic premonition, implied by an ominous cobalt sky, a storm-tossed field of wheat and a flock of crows, which, as the soundtrack rises to a crescendo, fly out of the painting to consume us in their blackness. It is a dramatic visual metaphor for the artist’s mental torture, which led him to take his own life at the tragically early age of 37.
But, mercifully, we are not abandoned to despair. We are returned to the rich blues and creams of Amandier en Fleur, the flowering almond tree, whose background fades to black as the fragrant blossoms drift down gently in a soothing finale.
Runs until 31 December 2019