Van Gogh Gone Virtual
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
Van Gogh Gone Virtual: Issues of Exploring a Museum through Video
As cities across the world have entered quarantine, art museums have been faced with the particular challenge of allowing the public to meaningfully engage with physical artwork. Thankfully, most museums have long maintained digital archives of their collections, and many of these museums have recently incorporated virtual tours of their galleries. Viewing artworks virtually, of course, was never intended to substitute for seeing works in person; the shortcomings of virtual viewing had not needed to be scrutinized because they seemed to serve their purpose well enough: providing an alternative, albeit more shallow, mode of viewing artworks. Considering that museums across the world will function as entirely digital spaces for an unknown period of time, the shortcomings of their online resources now, more than ever, seem worth addressing. Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum provides an interesting case study for such resources; the museum began uploading virtual tours of their galleries merely a week after quarantine, and despite creating these videos under such short notice, incorporated rather imaginative techniques into their videos. The videos are not “tours” in a traditional sense, as there is no narrator heard or guide shown. Rather, the entirely first-person videos are filmed in an empty gallery and set to lush, carefully selected music and subtly overlayed sound effects. The series transforms the “tour” from a guided educational experience into an emotional one; while this unconventional approach feels particularly appropriate to Van Gough’s body of work, a lack of supplemental information in either the videos or video descriptions sabotages the most successful, nuanced aspects of the series.
From the homepage of the Van Gough Museum’s website, visitors are prompted to explore digital resources through a prominent message: “We bring the museum to you.” From here, visitors are redirected to Youtube, where they can view the museum’s seven-part, 4K Ultra HD tour series. Ambient music is scored along with slow pans through the museum’s various galleries, lending a sense of drama and immersion to the virtual tour. The soundtrack seems to be meticulously composed, complementing the distinct moods of each gallery space. The dramatic orchestral composition of the second video, for example, perfectly complements the “Painter of a Peasant Life” gallery, whose works have a collectively dark, somber mood. An orchestra crescendos as the camera approaches the gallery’s largest and most famous work, The Potato Eaters (1885), further highlighting the intense struggle of the five figures who are depicted with gaunt faces and weathered hands (Figure 1). The third video in the series explores the “Modern Art in Paris” gallery, whose paintings are flooded with light and saturated with vibrant color. The optimistic subjects of his paintings (Figure 2)-- blooming fields, lush bouquets, and portraits of youthful, bourgeois women-- are paired with a sweet, melodious soundtrack. The difference in mood which is created between the dramatic orchestral piece of the “Painter of a Peasant Life” and the “Modern Art in Paris” galleries is stark, and makes evident the extent to which the soundtrack of the video series was considered.
The camera pans smoothly as it navigates each museum space in the series, and in some instances the camera’s movement is timed to the changing rhythm of the soundtrack. The series is particularly impressive considering that it was uploaded on March 17, 2020, a mere seven days after the Netherlands banned gatherings of more than 100 people in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Because the series aims to navigate the entire museum-- an ambitious task regardless of time constraints-- it necessarily privileges the viewing experience of certain works. In key moments, this immersion is heightened by the use of sound effects which complement the environments’ of particular works. As the camera drifts toward Van Gogh’s View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882), for instance, the sounds of distant sea gulls and crashing waves are subtly layered over the video’s music track. The sounds of the sea are not at all overpowering, and the effects transport the viewer to Schveningen’s coast for themselves. One seems to gaze out at the sea, not consumed by details of the sand or human figures, but rather impacted by the mood of a grey, stormy sky and a sailboat struggling against turbulent water (Figure 3). The series’ high resolution allows for low-light filming, and the second video accurately captures the dim environment of the gallery while preserving the detail of artworks shown. In the case of View of the Sea at Scheveningen, the deep teal paint of the work’s dimly lit gallery is given justice. The rich paint harmoniously complements the hazy, desaturated tones of the painting, as well as the warm, deep hue of the painting’s wooden frame.
Unfortunately, just as the painting has come into central view, the camera immediately pans away from the work, moving on to the painting to its immediate right. The viewer is given a mere moment to absorb the work; though one of course has the option to pause the video, doing so also pauses the music and the sounds of the sea, which entirely breaks the immersive quality the video once so wonderfully achieved. There is also an issue of viewing distance. The painting is never closely approached; if the viewer wishes to see the painting in greater detail, they must wait until the camera sweeps across the work’s faint title, enter the title (which, in this case, may prove difficult to spell for non-Dutch speakers), and navigate to the Van Gogh Museum’s digital archives. Once using the archive to view the painting, it becomes immediately apparent just how much detail is absent in the video. Gummy dabs of paint protrude from the sea and coastline with increasing severity from horizon to foreground, creating an illusion of depth, as well as heightening the sensed aggression of the waves (Figure 4). One can only imagine that if the video had approached the painting more closely, lingering for a while longer on such moments while the soundtrack played on, that the viewer’s experience would have been dramatically improved.
Instead, the camera moves along without pause to Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884-1885)(Figure 5). As with the previous work, the video layers its ambient soundtrack with the sound of a church bell ringing in the distance. And, as was the case with View of the Sea at Scheveningen, the lush environment created by such careful sound editing is interrupted by the swift departure of the camera. Closer inspection of the work through the museum’s digital archives, again, reveals critical moments of interest such as the translucent silhouettes of two women standing in the foreground (Figure 6). And, critically, while viewers are given only seconds to absorb the work, they are given no time at all to learn about its context. Only the title of the work is faintly legible in the video, while the text beside the painting is entirely neglected. Unless one undergoes the tedious process of pausing the video and searching for “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” in the archive, much of the significance of the work’s visual elements is lost. Having navigated away from Youtube to the museum’s website, one learns that Vicent painted the work to lift the spirits of his housebound mother. X-rays of the work reveal that in later stages of painting, he added autumn foliage to originally bare trees, and that he replaced a peasant farmer with the eight churchgoers in the foreground. His additions, which brighten an otherwise overcast sky and enliven a once solitary scene, become all the more powerful when understood as conscious decisions to gladden his mother. Such context, which was so carefully collected and imparted by the museum, is absent from every single work shown in the seven part video series.
It’s worth noting that the sixth video in the series somewhat remedies the issue of limited viewing time and camera distance. The video highlights just three of Van Gogh’s works from Auvers-sur-Oise: Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds (1890), Wheatfield with Crows (1890), and Tree Roots (1890). Rather than navigating the entire gallery space, the camera approaches the three works from a distance before lingering on each so that the viewer has time to absorb their compositions. The camera then zooms into each work, sweeping across the paintings’ canvases to reveal dimensional strokes of paint. Sound effects are again used, though here seem much more effective given the closer attention granted to the paintings’ details. The sound of sweeping grass is paired with the inspection of Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds. Though the grass appears as static mass from across the gallery, when seen more closely the thick, layered strokes of oil paint weave between one another, creating the illusion that the grass sways along with the breeze of an impending thunderstorm (Figure 7). Because the viewer does not have to visit a separate webpage to see this level of detail, one is more fully immersed in the viewing experience. The close-up footage of Wheatfield with Crows, similarly, breathes life into the scene with the overlaid soundtrack of a flock of birds. The last work shown in the video, Tree Roots (1890), is also paired with sound effects as its details are observed. Because of the soundtrack’s volume, the layered sound is nearly indiscernible; but as the camera pans away from the painting, the sound of a man releasing a single, heavy breath can be heard. In every other instance of sound effect in the series, the layered sound has a clear root in its respective painting’s environment. At first, the choice to overlay a landscape scene with the sound of breathing seems rather unusual. If the viewer were to have had access to Tree Roots’ object label beforehand, however, the suggestion being made here would be more clear; this painting is believed to be the last of Van Gough’s works, painted the morning before his death in 1890. The video introduces an environmental aspect to the painting which Van Gough himself had not consciously included: his last breath, heard softly and easily mistaken for a breeze. This sonic allegory beautifully nods to the conclusion of the artist’s life. Unfortunately, this detail will most likely be lost to the series’ casual viewers because the video omitted both the works object label and title. To learn the title of the work, one must navigate the museum’s archive and filter through the dozens of works under the “landscape” tag.
Though the video series, for the most part, does not give justice to the brush strokes and dimensionality for which Van Gogh is so famous, it’s worth praising that it achieves something which the traditional museum space does not. The careful choice of soundtrack and sound effects breath a sense of life into the painter’s scenes. In certain moments, this innovative presentation of his works wonderfully reimagines the modern viewing experience. This aspect of the video series feels particularly appropriate to Van Gough among other painters. The activation of painted scenes through sound effects complements the lively movement achieved through prominent brushstrokes and bold color palettes. Further, Van Gough’s reputation as an unconventional painter during his lifetime seems to be aptly celebrated by an unconventional mode of presentation. The series does have major issues: the galleries are rushed through, the vast majority of paintings are never shown in detail, works’ titles are not shown clearly, and the videos’ descriptions do not list the works shown. Fortunately, most of these issues can be easily solved. Simply amending each video’s description with works’ titles and a link to the archive would provide context for those interested, allowing them to see each work in greater detail and to learn about their context.
Anthony Deutsch, and Toby Sterling. “Dutch Close Museums, Ban Public Gatherings amid Virus Outbreak.” Reuters, March 12, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-netherlands-events/dutch-close-museums-ban-public-gatherings-amid-virus-outbreak-idUSKBN20Z2DB.
The Van Gogh Museum. “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen,” n.d. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0003V1962.
Leeuw, Ronald de. “The Museum in Perspective.” Van Gogh Museum Journal 1995, 1995.
Van Gogh Museum. “Search the Collection,” n.d. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/search/collection.
The Van Gogh Museum. “The Potato Eaters,” n.d. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0005V1962.
“The Van Gogh Museum,” n.d. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en.
The Van Gogh Museum. “Tree Roots,” n.d. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0195V1962.
Van Gogh Museum 4K Tour || Part 2/7 ||. Vol. 2. 7 vols. Van Gogh Museum 4K Tour. Van Gough Museum, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3kfiH_dacw&list=PLp9bGKxyieV2dOlQUVMq0i_5QSShvghVP&index=2.
Van Gogh Museum 4K Tour || Part 3/7 ||. Vol. 3. 7 vols. Van Gogh Museum 4K Tour, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmq2yQAEHZY&list=PLp9bGKxyieV2dOlQUVMq0i_5QSShvghVP&index=3.
Van Gogh Museum 4K Tour || Part 4/7 ||. Vol. 3. 7 vols. Van Gogh Museum 4K Tour, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKba_4M0kp8&list=PLp9bGKxyieV2dOlQUVMq0i_5QSShvghVP&index=6
The Van Gogh Museum. “View of the Sea at Scheveningen,” n.d. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0416M1990.