An immersive experience of Van Gogh

This time last week I was in a sunny city centre, fulfilling a commitment I made to a friend before the COVID pandemic began and the government put the country into lockdown.

We were visiting the Van Gogh exhibition at Leicester’s All Saints’ Church on High Cross Street – a church I didn’t know existed until we walked out of High Cross car park and down the side-alley to find it.  Hidden on one side by the many levels of the car park and another by the many levels of a wide block of flats, the church is blocked from the view of cars zooming along the ring road just feet away from it.  As such, it’s an unexpected oasis of calm in an otherwise busy city, the churchyard behind it a rare patch of vegetation amongst acres of concrete, brick and steel.

I knew very little about Vincent Van Gogh other than that he painted bright pictures of sunflowers and suffered from depression, cutting off one of his ears at some point in his career. I quickly learned much more about him – biographical facts about his life, obviously, but also about his beliefs on art and how it should be practised and about the lasting impact his style of painting – not popular during his lifetime – had on the artists who came after him. 

I was shocked to discover how young he was when he died.  What we didn’t realise until we arrived was that we’d chosen an auspicious day to visit – the 29th of July – this being the date of Van Gogh’s death 131 years ago.

Though there were traditional information boards, the majority of the exhibition was delivered – as its title suggests – in an experiential, ‘immersive’ way.  The main ‘activity’ was in the church’s nave, where we watched images of Van Gogh’s paintings flow around the walls to a soundtrack of music and an actor reading extracts of his letters.  His painting of ‘The Bedroom’ was recreated in another area and as we reached the exit, we were offered an ‘extra’ activity – my particular favourite – viewed through a virtual reality headset: namely, a tour of the village of Arles as depicted by Van Gogh in many of his works.  It was well worth the additional £3 that this cost.

Altogether, the visit was a beautiful, calming and affirming experience – both of creativity in general and of the story of Van Gogh’s life, despite its sad and untimely ending.  Though I consider myself a writer more than an artist, I found much to take away from his thoughts to support my own practice in both areas. And have continued my new hobby of sketching – picked up on a recent trip to Buxton – with renewed vigour ever since.

As ever the history nerd and ponderer of other people’s stories, I found All Saints’ Church to be as interesting as the exhibition and read gravestones and plaques and took photos of church architecture to my heart’s content.  My friend and I rounded off the morning with a chin-wag and a cuppa with gluten-free cake in The Lane’s.  Altogether a great morning, filling the creative well, treating the taste buds and satisfying a need for company sorely missed over the past year and a bit.

Read the piece I wrote about the visit with my writing group here

Find further information on the exhibition itself here.

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