I used to joke that at the finale of the show for Van Gogh Alive, a presenter would announce that as a final act, Van Gogh… comes alive…

It turned out to be more than a showcase of the Dutch artist himself, the same one who prophesied that the future belonged to the colorist. That future he spoke of reared its head after his death, revealed its full self at the turn of the century, and extends its long hands to the present generation who still sing of him as that Vincent who suffered for his sanity, who took his own life; that Vincent whom people would not listen to because they did not know how, but now we’re not just listening, we’re sitting bolt upright in our seats, and in awe of the master colorist.

After Vincent, we gazed at the starry night like never before. But before he joined the ranks of the stars, he trudged on Earth defying the norms and chose the path of abnormality where flowers grew in abundance. He took several twists and turns of failed attempts in his life before deciding to take up art just when he was at the brink of 30. Seven years later, when the world was just about ready for him, he made his way out and left behind about 2,100 artworks. Colin Wiggins, the Special Projects curator of the National Gallery, noted how remarkably brief Vincent’s working life as an artist, especially when compared to other greats such as Michelangelo or Rembrandt. “Vincent is like a meteor. Whoosh and he’s gone.” 

Van Gogh self-portrait

Speaking to an audience, the curator also said of the painter, “Vincent communicates. He communicates to people who aren’t interested in art.” I haven’t touched a pencil for years and my sketch pad appears wanting. But almost two years ago my daughter came along, and by posting art prints at her eye level on our living room wall, the first artist I introduced her to was the colorist Vincent Van Gogh. 

When we realized that the weekend online tickets to Van Gogh Alive sold out fast, my husband and I took a day off from work, and with our toddler in tow, we traveled all the way from Bataan to BGC just to watch the show. A few minutes ahead of schedule, we found ourselves standing in line after a Chinese woman and a Caucasian mother with her pre-teen daughters.

We were asked to form a straight line, but Ella kept straying off so the Chinese woman smiled as she turned to us and said, “It’s really hard to make young kids fall in line.” She greeted Ella and introduced the young Caucasian girls who looked more bored than friendly. She continued to talk to Ella and said about the art show, “You’re going to see lots of flashing lights.”

When the doors to the show opened, the lines moved quite fast. On a TV screen near the doors flashed seven reminders and tips on how to enjoy the show. We were advised to find a spot to enjoy the scenes and to be careful with the selfies because, after all, “it’s way cooler to experience than to be seen.”

Reproduction of The Bedroom in The Van Gogh Alive exhibit in Poland.

The first thing that greeted us upon opening the door and stepping into the antechamber was a real-life rendition of “The Bedroom,” a painting of Van Gogh’s bedroom when he was still staying at the Yellow House and waiting for the French artist Paul Gaugin to join him in Arles, France. The bedroom consists of just the basic furniture such as a single bed, a couple of chairs, and a table.

Van Gogh wanted the painting to induce calm just like a real bedroom so he used the colors to that effect and so that they won’t stir the imagination. What made the painting memorable, at least for me, was the skewed wall to the left of the bed with wall frames that tilt to one side.

It’s easy to assume that it’s a mistake done by an amateur artist but the distorted perspective was deliberate to reflect the trapezoid room with walls in odd angles. When it came to the real-life rendition, however, the wall that should’ve been slanting stood as straight as any other wall, and the wall frames hung perfectly balanced. The symmetry disappointed me.

A short walk through the anteroom showcased canvases of some of Van Gogh’s most popular paintings along with a brief background and even some of his quotable quotes. One entire wall to the right of the entrance featured a colorless Starry Night with the words “I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.” The “Sunflowers” took a premier spot on the yellow wall at the center of the anteroom with a quote: “The sunflower is mine in a way.”

We stepped into the room proper where the lights were off. The show had already begun. People crouched on the floor or sat on the few benches or stood on the sides. We found a spot near a screen and sat on the floor. High-definition projector screens set up throughout the room’s walls, columns, and in the middle flashed continuous scenes of a painting or various aspects of it or even diverse pictures. 

Classical music accompanied the array of over 3,000 images. I didn’t identify the music with Van Gogh but the musical score jived with the animation on the paintings. Colors burst on the screen. A red dot turned into a smudge and blotted out all the screens so that the whole room bled. We heard the crows flap their wings as they flew across the wheatfield and disappeared from view. The trains moved and transported us from one period of Van Gogh’s life to another.

The water in the Rhône stirred. The colors trapped in the footboard of Van Gogh’s single bed tugged at both ends trying to escape its linear boundary. We zoned in on the pipe on Van Gogh’s chair. The paintings’ micro details loomed before us. For once, the strokes superseded the overall picture and swayed on the screens as if to revel in all its glory. We could only gasp and watch in awe as the strokes and the colors that made Van Gogh’s paintings identifiable around the world came alive and, for brief moments, revealed themselves with all splendor.

A man's silhouette against the projector screen reflecting one of Van Gogh's self-portraits at Van Gogh Alive in Poland.

It’s hard to set apart Van Gogh from his masterpieces. His command for colors meant they did the work for him. The masterful strokes spoke of the master behind them. His paintings can be showcased in a multi-sensory exhibit such as Van Gogh Alive because his art had a transcendental quality. He said so himself: He dreamed of his painting and he painted his dream. 

But what I’ve come to behold in that hourlong of a show was the power that besieged his mind and soul. I saw it in the strokes that whirled from their slumber and danced to their own rhythm. I saw it in the colors that sparkled bursting with life inside of them. No wonder Van Gogh picked up his pencil despite his suffering. To be a master of his craft, he had to be enslaved by something larger than life itself. It was the only way he could break free from his own limitations. Deep down he knew it. There was only one path for him. 

Call it Fate, Purpose, or what-have-you. This invincible force has the nature of asking until you bleed. And for Van Gogh, he gave nothing short of his life. The world might have been quick to judge him a madman, a tortured artist, a failure, and his life tragic. But at the same breath, they pronounced him a master of art, a genius, and looked up to him like they would to a starry night.

The animated colors and the magnified strokes tapped at the chambers in my heart, spoke of heights and infinity, and of how much would be asked should I be willing. As gleaned from the terrain of humanity, Van Gogh’s luster evoked not just the tremendous brilliance that made him one with the stars, but in his brief time as a mortal, he persisted with an exceptional state of mind and an unshakable spirit, which this world could hardly understand, much more its wandering generalities.

After more than a century, we mortals are still dazzled from the blaze of Van Gogh’s trail. 

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