Now I understand what you tried to say to me

How you suffered for your sanity

How you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how

Perhaps they’ll listen now

Don McLean, “Vincent”

It’s a bit of a surprise to me that Don McLean’s song about Vincent Van Gogh isn’t part of the Immersive Van Gogh experience. But the words have never held more meaning to me. I stare at the walls of the room, walls dancing with brush strokes, with moving and shifting paintings by Van Gogh projected on every surface. Music plays, and the images change to the melody. Sunflowers, irises, most of the best-known of Van Gogh’s works and many of the lesser-known, all come in turn to the walls around me and the floor beneath me.

The Immersive Van Gogh exhibition

If I’m being completely honest, Van Gogh is not one of my favorite artists. But for someone like me who has spent my entire life struggling with mental illness, there is a familiarity with his work that seems to reflect some of my own truth. When I am depressed, the world appears different, in ways that are hard to describe. Colors are different, sometimes less vivid, sometimes more. I am drawn to different features, to the graying of the clouds before a storm or to a dead tree. I see beauty, but it fades in my mind. And so for me, while I don’t love Van Gogh’s works from an artistic standpoint, I feel them emotionally.

I think this is what Don McLean was writing about. Vincent Van Gogh and his art are a message about mental illness, one that for so many people seems to get lost. I gaze around the room. It is crowded – always a worry during Covid times, though everyone is masked and vaccinated – filled with people of all ages. And everyone is staring rapt at the images, transfixed by the works of a man who committed suicide at 37, only a couple years older than my own suicide attempt. Do they understand the man or his art?

His self portraits

Music plays. The image shifts. I stare at a set of mirrored columns that both reflect the painting around me and break it up in a way I find moving and beautiful. A broken image for a broken man, but whether I am referring to Vincent or to myself I don’t know. I am captivated, focusing both outward and inward, the experience so much more personal than I had expected.

Broken irises

The show lasts about 45 minutes before beginning again, what will likely be an endless cycle of music and art throughout the day. I feel small, like a scribble that had no business being on a masterpiece, but somehow making sense there. The walls light up again; the faces of those who arrived too late for the beginning of the prior show do the same. I cross to the exit, not sure exactly what I am feeling, trying to make sense of my experience.

Vincent stares at me in a reflection

What did Vincent Van Gogh want people seeing his art to feel? What would he want me to feel seeing it move with the help of CGI? Would he care, or was he just expressing himself and his struggles in the only way that made sense to him, a medium that was never intended to be shared?

“They would not listen, they did not know how.” The words reverberate in my head. Tens of thousands of people have experienced Immersive Van Gogh in cities around the world. Are they listening?

I want to believe they are. I want to believe – I need to believe – that an experience like this is a way for people to connect to the message behind a deep and troubled man. I want to believe that this sort of accessibility to the power of art can serve as a bridge between those who just see paint on canvas and those for whom these works are deeply personal mirrors into their own mental health struggles. I want to believe those here are having a similar experience to my own.

No matter the individual experience, Immersive Van Gogh is an incredible exhibition, one that brings art to people in a way they have almost certainly never thought possible. It allows visitors to stand inside the paintings of a complicated and beautiful man, to feel themselves as part of a story that encompasses more than mere brushstrokes. And, as Don McLean so eloquently sings, “perhaps they’ll listen now.”

It can be hard to talk about mental illness. My own has been a struggle, one I spent years trying to hide from the world around me. If you also struggle with mental illness, you are not alone. There are so many of us, and there are resources out there to help. I hope my openness around my own mental health challenges can help to normalize it, even in a small way.

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