The Meet Vincent Van Gogh experience on the South Bank in London took me back to my pre teenage years when I picked up a second hand (and well read) copy of the book Lust for Life by Irving Stone. It was this fictional novel that introduced me to the short life and painting career of Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh, who became an artist after several attempts at becoming a teacher and minister. Several years later when I heard this exhibition was coming to London I was excited to introduce my 3 year old to the life of Van Gogh. Here are my top 5 reasons you should too.
The exhibition is an immersive re-telling of Van Gogh’s life through an audio guide and a series of selfie factory style rooms where photography is not only allowed but encouraged. I chose the children’s audio guide for myself and the toddler and we immersed ourselves in this tragic story as we learnt of his apprenticeship to the art dealer Goupil, the close relationship that Van Gogh had with his brother Theo and the magical encounter with Gauguin. There is also mention of his relocation to Provence and the well known descent into madness including the cutting off his ear and finally his suicide. We used the audio guide on and off with my three year old leading the way.
OK so there are no original Van Gogh artworks and the focus is more on his life than on his masterpieces but it is immensely enjoyable to walk around alongside large projections of his paintings and also very fun for kids although I’m not entirely sure how Vincent Van Gogh would feel to see his work blown up on screen, much of the detail reduced and some kitsch elements added.
The exhibition is highly interactive and perfect for little hands wanting to touch everything and climb everywhere. As avid exhibition goers where we normally have to mention ‘don’t touch’ on repeat, and this provided me with a welcome respite. The toddler was allowed to explore, touch everything he desired and get involved as much as possible. We had a go at sketching people and houses, zoomed in on Van Gogh paintings, touched fruits and skulls, climbed on tables and chairs and took lots of photographs with the beautiful Van Gogh backdrops.
You can climb into a Van Gogh painting.
Sure the exhibition may lack a lot of the depth, emotion and details that the Royal Academy’s 2010 ‘The Real Van Gogh’ had. I found that particularly touching, especially where Van Gogh’s descent into madness could very much be felt through his paintings and letters to his brother. But my three year old delighted in the family friendly life sized recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles (alongside the painting) that he could climb on. For a toddler being able to effectively step into a painting was mesmerising and he climbed on and off the bed, explored the details meticulously opening and closing drawers and we continued the fun after the exhibition by sketching our own bedroom at home. For him this would win hands down.
Different ages will take different things from the exhibition. For a three year old the education lies in the colours and the textures, the drawings and the emotions. It touches on topical subjects like mental health and wellbeing, art, history and so much more. Older children may understand certain subjects more whilst younger children can enjoy the colours, the screens and the playful elements. We talked about planting sunflowers for our garden, that it is OK to feel sad and that paintings are better than selfies (although we took selfies with the paintings). It’s a great way to introduce young Londoners to the painter. A memorable first encounter that deals with a weighty subject in a lighthearted and creative way, using technology to engage, entertain and educate.
The whole thing is a funhouse and there’s no doubt about it. We spent around two hours exploring the exhibition, listening on and off to the audio guide (which the toddler enjoyed playing with) and generally enjoying the space. Outside the weather was pouring and venture inside Van Gogh’s tent felt similar to seeing an oracle – you’re not entirely sure you believe them but you go along for the ride. For us, a couple of hours spent in the exhibition was worthwhile amusement. There are many photo opportunities where you can take in some history, learn a thing or two about one of the most famous artists around.
Meet Vincent Van Gogh is on at the South Bank (just behind the National Theatre) until 21st of May and adult tickets are £20, children aged 2-12 are £16, toddlers and babies under 2 going free. More info and bookings here.