Once upon a time, there was an ambitious artist who painted more than 900 paintings in just ten years but unluckily sold only one of them during his lifetime. No, here I am not talking about some unknown painter – it was Vincent van Gogh who struggled to break through. Considering we know him now as one of the most famous artists who ever lived, his not being appreciated in his own time might sound strange. In fact, it took decades after he died in 1890 before his paintings started to gain recognition, and even almost a century before they eventually achieved their enormous worldwide popularity, giving Van Gogh the status of one of the greatest (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2023). But how is his success kept alive – and even growing – in an era where traditional art seems to become endangered by new technological developments?
Revival through Remediation
An answer to this question lies in remediation, described by Bolter & Grusin (2000) as the process of new media reforming or improving upon older media. In some instances, it allows an artist to give an intermedial twist to their work, creating something new by fusing existing media (Higgins & Higgins, 2001). These concepts have also been applied to Van Gogh’s art. Besides his millions-of-worth paintings being on display all around the world, we nowadays see his art appear through other media as well. Two such examples are discussed in this article. Firstly, I will examine Loving Vincent, an animated feature film in which every frame is painted in Van Gogh’s signature style. Secondly, I will discuss the recently emerging immersive exhibitions, where visitors are entirely surrounded by the painter’s art as if they are part of them. This article thus analyses the remediation of Van Gogh’s work by studying these two cases of intermediality. It explores how remediation creates a new, intermedial experience of Van Gogh's art and how that process influences the perception of his work.
Loving Vincent: A Painted Film
Besides his post-Impressionist paintings, Van Gogh is famous for his fascinating story. During his life, Vincent corresponded through letters, most of which were addressed to his brother Theo. These were published after his death, enabling people to learn about him and his life: his experiences, thoughts, and trauma. Feeling heavily misunderstood and depressed in his last years, he has become the image of the ‘tortured artist.' This story is depicted in the feature film Loving Vincent, set in 1890, where we follow a young man coming to Van Gogh’s last hometown to deliver a letter as he investigates the final days of the 37-year-old artist. But what makes this film so unique and ground-breaking is that it is fully painted. The footage was shot with actors first and later painted over frame by frame – a technique that took six years to develop and execute. During this time, more than 120 of Van Gogh’s paintings were re-imagined, resulting in over 65,000 oil paintings (one for each frame) that make up the 95-minute-long animated film. “The reason we made the film is not because we want to be the first, or that we want to set any records,” the creators point out, “it is because we believe that you cannot truly tell Vincent’s story without his paintings” (Loving Vincent, n.d.).
Loving Vincent does not fit into any fixed aesthetic categories; its intermediality lies in the fusion of film and painting. What emerges is something new – it is the world’s first fully painted feature film.
Over the past decades, rapid technological developments have resulted in new approaches and uses of media. The products that have appeared due to these changes have brought new dimensions to the concept of intermediality (Sivri & Özdemir, 2022). As Higgins & Higgins (2001) illustrated, ‘intermediality’ refers to works that fall conceptually between already-known media, blurring their boundaries and creating something new. In other words, by fusing old media, artists create new ones. The same holds for Loving Vincent, which does not fit into any fixed aesthetic categories; its intermediality lies in the fusion of film and painting. What emerges is something new – it is the world’s first fully painted feature film. Modern technologies play a crucial part in this fusion: shooting footage and adding visual effects, after which each frame is painted over; adding the actors’ voices and creating soundscapes; and finally, editing everything into one coherent piece. Moreover, the film is intermedial in the sense that the story is a mixture of facts and fiction. Although based on and filled with historical facts about Van Gogh’s life, the plot is fundamentally fictional: the main character has never existed, and no one tried so thoroughly to investigate Vincent’s death until almost a hundred years later.
As briefly mentioned earlier, intermediality is closely linked to remediation. The latter concept originated from Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) idea that “the medium is the message”, meaning that the medium through which we communicate matters as much as, if not more than, its content. He argued that a medium is never alone because it relates to other media. Put differently, the content of a medium is always another medium. Bolter & Grusin (2000) expanded on this notion, coining the term ‘remediation’. Their book Remediation: Understanding New Media demonstrates that new media does not make old media obsolete; photographs do not replace paintings, nor do movies replace theatre plays. Instead, the authors emphasize the interplay between them. New media can transform or improve upon prior media forms, preserving some of their features while discarding others.
Loving Vincent is an illustrative example of remediation. During its creation, a team re-imagined a selection of Van Gogh’s paintings to form the basis for the film. The creators further studied his work to paint every frame while retaining distinctive elements of his art, such as his use of oil paint and general artistic style. In other words, they refashioned the medium of painting to fit the medium of film, resulting in such a unique concept. To clarify Loving Vincent’s remediation, an example is given below. In Figure 1, we see an original piece by Van Gogh, the green wheat fields in his last hometown, Auvers. Based on this piece, the film frame presented in Figure 2 depicts the main character, Armand, traveling through these fields, showing how the creators have re-imagined and reformed his 1890 painting.
“Instead of just telling us a story about Van Gogh’s perturbed life and hostile world, Loving Vincent shows this to us through their remediation.” (Lopez, n.d.)
Although the idea of a painted film about Van Gogh and its Academy Award nomination seems a promising recipe for success, the public’s reaction has been mixed. For example, Lopez (n.d.) recognized, on the one hand, how Loving Vincent attempts to bridge the gap between the two media through their remediation, but on the other hand, how it failed to engage its viewers, calling it a “predictable crime-drama, developing several incomplete narratives.” Its lack of narration perhaps lies in the story’s unoriginality, as anyone familiar with Van Gogh will probably have heard it before. However, he writes that the distinction between showing and telling is crucial in this film. Though criticized for being more pictorial than expressive, he believes that to be the point: “Instead of just telling us a story about Van Gogh’s perturbed life and hostile world, Loving Vincent shows this to us through their remediation.” Showing part of his story this way is a call to recognize the importance of Van Gogh and artists in general and appreciate their creations (Lopez, n.d.).
The film’s remedial aspects are also lauded by Sayrezine (n.d.), who describes that such remediation breathes new life into old work, preventing them from being discarded in a world of increasingly lively cultural stimulation. Besides, they wrote that Loving Vincent makes fine art accessible for those who do not visit museums, and it challenges the limitations placed on film as an artistic medium. In their comment that the film’s style is the substance, they hint at McLuhan’s (1964) perspective that the medium is the message. This would thus imply that Loving Vincent’s style – the medium with its intermedial and remedial elements – should be the object of focus rather than the content. And that is what both Lopez (n.d.) and Sayrezine (n.d.) point out: although Loving Vincent might lack engaging narration, it is unfair to narrow down the film to just that aspect – the medium it is created offers so much more.
Immersive Van Gogh Exhibitions
Over the past few years, more and more immersive exhibitions have popped up. Because of their rapidly increasing popularity, museums have been created solely for this purpose. With his colourful post-Impressionist style, Van Gogh’s art seems to lend itself perfectly to this medium. Although given different names – be it Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, Immersive Van Gogh, or Van Gogh Alive – the essence is the same for all: visitors walk around in an open space where Van Gogh’s paintings are projected on the floor and walls that surround them. In other words, by entering this digital theatre, you step into his art and immerse yourself in the painter's world.
Here, we can also recognize how recent technologies have paved the way for a new media approach. As well as Loving Vincent, these exhibitions set an example of an intermedial experience based on Van Gogh’s art, as they conceptually fall between existing media. Firstly, immersive exhibitions fall between traditional and digital art. Although based on traditional art, namely his paintings, that is not what is on display; instead, it is a digital projection. So, these exhibitions cross the boundaries of traditional Van Gogh exhibitions, where his paintings are solely displayed on the walls and thus emerge as a new form of presenting his work. Another intermedial element lies in the use of both art and music. The projected artworks are accompanied by classical soundtracks, making the exhibition a mixture of these media. Lastly, in certain cases, the exhibition fuses the art display with animation. Van Gogh’s paintings are then not merely projected, but moving elements are added to them. For example, the visitors see the wind blow through his painted fields or the rippling water under his famous starry night sky, enhancing the immersive experience even more.
These recently appearing exhibitions, which place the visitor inside the painter’s art, also have a remedial nature. Here, too, the content of a medium is another medium – the content of the digital exhibitions is Van Gogh’s traditional paintings. In other words, his original work is remediated into a digital, sometimes animated, auditory and visual experience. One strategy of remediation, as Bolter & Grusin (2000) explain, is transparent immediacy, where the goal is to make the viewer forget the presence of the medium and to make them believe their experience is immediate and direct; that they are in the presence of the objects of representation (What is remediation?, n.d.). Immersive Van Gogh exhibitions are based on this type of remediation, as the visitor's immersion aims to make the medium disappear. They thus reform the artist’s static paintings to fit a digital exhibition that strives for transparent immediacy, aiming to make the visitor become one with Van Gogh’s art.
Perhaps the appeal of immersive exhibitions lies not in their true artistic value but in their uniqueness and accessibility to experience high art in a newly remediated way – in a multisensory, immersive way.
With their rising popularity, it is safe to say that immersive exhibitions speak to many. However, others might view them more critically. For instance, Zhao (n.d.) states that although most people support using digital technologies to restore artworks and allow more people to experience art, the digital replicas of Van Gogh’s paintings lack aura. The exhibition is promoted as an outpouring of the artist’s soul, Livingston (2021) writes, but that is precisely what is missing. She explains that in their remediation, his small images are blown out of proportion and flattened, discarding the subtlety of his signature brushwork. The result is a digital show with textureless reproductions, which O’Brien (2022) describes as giving a disorganized impression, where you should not look too closely at the details. Although immersive exhibitions thus indeed form a unique way of approaching art, the overwhelming technology does not do Van Gogh and his work justice (Livingston, 2021). They are like a "flashy commodification of a complex artist," she adds. So, perhaps the appeal of immersive exhibitions lies not in their actual artistic value but in their uniqueness and accessibility to experience high art in a newly remediated way – in a multisensory, immersive way.
In short, this article discussed the remediation of Van Gogh’s paintings based on two cases of intermediality. It aimed to explore how remediation creates a new, intermedial experience of Van Gogh's art and how that process influences how his work is perceived. I first examined Loving Vincent, a project that lies at the intersection of film and painting. Through the remediation of Van Gogh’s traditional paintings, a new concept emerged, namely that of a fully painted feature film. Given that the film consists of paintings, we can recognize McLuhan’s (1964) idea about the relation of media, that is, that the content of a medium is another medium. Moreover, by stating that Van Gogh’s story cannot be told without his paintings, the creators hint at McLuhan’s view that the medium is the message. The medium is what is important and what makes it powerful, not its substance. In other words, Loving Vincent does not tell a story with its content but instead shows it through its medium.
Secondly, I described immersive Van Gogh exhibitions, where his traditional art is fused with digital projections, animation, and music. Here, too, the content of a medium is another medium, as the digital exhibition consists of and remediates Van Gogh’s paintings. But while the medium should be the focal point for Loving Vincent, immersive exhibitions, on the contrary, aim to make the medium disappear. Striving for transparent immediacy, their goal is to immerse the visitors into the art, thereby making them forget the medium.
In an age of rapid technological developments, art can only move with the times.
Although popular among the general public, both projects had to deal with their due criticism – the film lacks an engaging narrative, and the digital reproductions fall flat. However, their popularity certainly shows a demand for new ways of experiencing art. In an age of rapid technological developments, art can only move with the times. New technologies and media paved the way for different forms of intermediality and remediation, as illustrated in the two case studies. Although one might argue this is not how Van Gogh’s art is intended to be experienced, such remediations undoubtedly make his work more accessible. They introduce people to the colourful world of the painter, reviving his art and thereby keeping his success alive.
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