The blue and gray digital beauty of “Starry Night” welcomed me into its embrace as the words of Don McClean’s “Vincent,” his anthem to the tortured soul of Vincent Van Gogh, whispered in my ears.
Before me, the walls of the monstrous Miami sound stage that once gave life to the modern-day masterpieces of Miami Vice, Bad Boys, and countless long-forgotten music videos, displayed the digital renditions of Van Gogh’s masterpieces in a 360-degree canvas that seamlessly dissolved one painting into another.
I had not been listening. I had not known how. But I was listening now.
The side trip to Arles
Three years ago, a trip to France took me through the town of Arles, the place that inspired so many of Van Gogh’s paintings, including my all-time favorite, Starry Night. It was the view he saw every night from the window of the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence to which he’d voluntarily committed himself.
At the time of my visit to Arles, I was more interested in continuing on my journey to Barcelona than stopping to explore the trees and daffodils that Van Gogh sketched. But the spirit of my surroundings moved me. I didn’t know why, but something stirred inside my soul and insisted that I write it down to save the memory.
I know better than to question The Muse when She commands, “Write it now!” With nothing else at my disposal, social media and my iPhone would have to do.
I posted a quick Facebook message, quoting McLean’s “Vincent.”
“And when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do.”
Within seconds, a private message from my friend Tara Gilani across the Atlantic startled me.
“You OK? That Vincent post was “funky.” Xo
“I’m in Provence … land of Van Gogh inspiration!” I replied. “I love you for checking in though!!!”
“Hooray!!” she wrote back, after I apologized for my cryptic message. “Enjoy!! Xoxox”
My quick response to Tara’s question, however, did not tell the whole story. There was something about Arles that moved me. But it wasn’t until three years later, at the Ice Palace Studios soundstage in Downtown Miami, that that something became clear.
Beneath the surface of the $100 million ‘pauper’
The legend that surrounds Van Gogh is one of darkness bordering on the edge of insanity … his severed ear, his ultimate suicide … all shrouded in mystery and stories to which layers upon layers of myth have been added so that the truth is no longer recognizable. It’s a historical game of telephone that seems to have no ending.
But what we don’t hear, what Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience captures in such visual eloquence, is the soul of the man who was haunted by a need to serve, accomplish his purpose, and struggled to be understood.
The digital experience inside the soundstage is the main course, but if you rush through the frames with the quotes and paintings that lead up to it, you miss understanding the beauty of the artist responsible for combining the ingredients into a recipe that no other artist has been able to duplicate.
The prelude to the experience itself is the appetizer that gives perspective to the works Van Gogh created. Without that perspective, he is just another painter.
Clinically, Van Gogh was believed to have suffered from epilepsy, acute insanity, and hallucinations. While at the asylum, he was supposedly getting better. But he relapsed, and it eventually led to his suicide.
But what came first? Did the madness inspire his masterpieces? Or was his inability to completely express himself a catalyst to the mental illness that would eventually lead to his suicide?
If you’re sane enough to question your sanity, to commit yourself to an asylum, could it be your brand of madness is the closest thing to sanity to which you can aspire?
What was guiding this “mad” man to create such timeless works of art that move people in ways that even those who know nothing about him can appreciate?
We can write the tortured, starving artist off and romanticize his plight. But beneath the surface lies a soul struggling to be understood, to celebrate their differences instead of fitting into a status quo.
Van Gogh was not exactly a pauper, but he didn’t have a lot of money while he was alive.
Starry Night is currently valued at about $100 million.
I left the Van Gogh Experience a changed woman, one with an appreciation and understanding of those who suffer from mental health issues, issues with which we all struggle in one way or another.
I also came away wondering if what we call madness is genius in disguise.
As a writer who struggles to get out of the way of inspiration and let the Universe use me as Her messenger, I relate to Van Gogh’s struggles. My demons are by no means as dark as Van Gogh’s, but releasing them through the written word is my therapy of choice. And when I don’t, the darkness returns.
Having those who read what I write learn from what they read — even if they don’t agree with me — is my purpose in life.
Don McLean stated it perfectly in the line that keeps repeating throughout “Vincent”:
Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
That song, written so many years ago, ends on a less-than-positive note.
They would not listen; they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will
But perhaps Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience will change that. Perhaps the refrain from earlier in the song will now become reality.
Perhaps they’ll listen now.
I’m listening, Vincent. I’m listening.
“Vincent” words and music by Don McLean