The High And Low Of Van Gogh: From Blue Chip Masterpiece To Immersive Escapism

Vincent van Gogh ‘Sunflowers’ (1853-1890), (January 1889) oil on canvas, 95 cm x 73 cm

Before the pandemic, the Van Gogh Museum was a major global tourist destination, with some 2.1 million visitors filling its galleries in 2019. The vast majority, 85 percent, came from other countries to gaze at masterworks like Sunflowers.

Visiting Amsterdam during the first week of March, I didn’t imagine that the more than 140 museums in the capital of the Netherlands would shudder within days. On a press trip to cover TEFAF Maastricht, our small group got a sneak peek at upcoming exhibitions at the city’s largest art museums that had to be quickly transformed into digital displays to keep audiences engaged.

The world’s most elite collectors are expected to bid between €5 million and €8 million ($6 million and $9.7 million) for a depiction of the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre, painted while Vincent van Gogh lived with his brother, Theo, in Paris, when it goes on the block at Sotheby’s in partnership with the French auction house Mirabaud Mercier on March 25.


Vincent van Gogh ‘Scène de rue à Montmartre (Impasse des Deux Frères et le Moulin à Poivre)’ (1887)

Scène de rue à Montmartre (1887) will go on public view for the first time in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, and Paris ahead of the sale in the French capital.

Tomorrow, the art world’s focus shifts to Christie’s New York, where a rare drawing from the family collection of London dealer Thomas Gibson depicting an anonymous young female sitter is expected to fetch between $7 million and $10 million.

Vincent Van Gogh ‘La Mousmé’ (1888)

La Mousmé (1888) is the last of a dozen artworks gifted by the artist to Australian painter John Russell remaining in private hands. Nine landscapes and two portraits from that set are now in permanent collections at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The drawing was returned to German-Jewish banker Kurt Hirschland in 1956 by Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, which acquired it in 1943. Hirschland bought it in 1920, and it was confiscated during the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940. When Hirschland died in 1957, he left the drawing to his son Paul who sold it to Gibson for an undisclosed price.

Meanwhile, folks lacking tens of millions to invest in art are scooping up tickets for timed slots at Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience in major cities throughout the world. The 360 degree digital art exhibition promises that visitors will “discover a new way to enjoy the works of Vincent van Gogh.” The virtual reality experience explores eight artworks, offering “digital displays, sound effects, projection mapping and much more!” The exclamatory marketing epitomizes the desire of folks to post filtered photos of themselves on social media, connecting with millions who craze this basic connection to some semblance of the art world.

Before the pandemic, I attended the press preview of a similar immersive experience, where folks in the 20s sprawled out on the floor or extended their limbs as if they were physically connected to the “art” being projected, as their friends focused on getting the best Instagram shot. Without hallucinogens, I felt trapped in the expansive, repurposed industrial space and disconnected from the reality others were trying to capture and share.

Alienated from the emotions others claim to feel during such an experience, the notion of participating in such experience during or after the pandemic is uncomfortable, even terrifying. I’ll happily wait until I can return to museums and galleries to experience the catharsis that comes from live viewing of original art.

Clearly, I’m an outlier, as the demand for immersive experiences has become a go-to pandemic pleasure with the hope it erases all worries, if just for a half hour.

“Stress and fear are quite individualized concepts and multifactorial in nature. But if people need a distraction from real life, or a palliative approach, then VR experiences could be used quite effectively.,” said Dr. Kim Bullock, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University’’s School of Medicine. “These immersive experiences highjack the senses and attention, making it easier not to wander back to thinking about our problems, stressors or negative emotions. Additionally, the loss of many pleasurable activities in a COVID lifestyle can lead to stress, which can lead to a depressed mood, which can zap a person’s energy. Adding sensory stimulation in VR can combat the stress that low energy and mood can cause.”

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience claims that it is “all digital, hands free, and perfect for our socially distant world.”

I’ll wait until it’s safe to board an airplane and travel to what for now seems like “distant world” where the original works are on display.

A multiple-award-winning journalist, I’ve held top editorial roles at The Associated Press and Dow Jones. A former student of literature, studio art and art history with