A 2-year-old reviews ‘Beyond Van Gogh,’ opening Friday in Portland


Immersive van Gogh exhibits are everywhere and on Friday, Portland will get its own version of the show when “Beyond Van Gogh” opens at the Oregon Convention Center.

Not everyone is a fan of these immersive experiences, which project animated public domain versions of van Gogh’s work onto walls and floors while music plays.

According to critic Michael Agresta, who wrote about the Austin, Texas version of “Beyond Van Gogh,” “Pulsing, animated stars populate the walls, black-and-white sketches fill in with color, and viewers of a certain age will feel an instinct to nudge a mouse and get back to Windows 95.”

“What ‘immense joy’ can be found in ‘Beyond Van Gogh Austin’ is accessible mostly to children and those in pursuit of their next great Instagram backdrop,” he added.

But is that really such a terrible thing? Though tickets to the Portland show range from $24.99 for children five and up to $93.99 for the VIP package, kids four and under are free. And if you have a kid under four, free is a great price for 35 minutes to an hour of entertainment.

So, we thought, why not take a child and see what they thought?

Luckily, we knew just where to find one. The daughter of this reporter, two-year-old Nona, was available for the day and while her initial response, when asked if she wanted to go with mom on a work assignment, was, “no,” we decided to take her anyway.

After all, she has been two for about a month and a half and had no idea what she was saying no to anyway.

“Beyond Van Gogh” begins, like most museums these days, with a gift shop. Here you can purchase a variety of shirts, posters, scrunchies and socks, all covered in public domain van Goghs.

Nona was miraculously uninterested in the gift shop, which wasn’t open for the press anyway, and so we headed straight through a curtain-made hallway into the wide main room, which was mostly open, except for several pillars that offered more projection surface.

kid at immersive van gogh exhibit

Portland’s “Beyond Van Gogh” with a 2-year-old

On the walls, van Gogh’s paintings appeared and disappeared, morphing and melting and coming to life.

Somewhere, hidden speakers played a soft soundtrack, mostly instrumental with the occasional van Gogh quote thrown in.

At first, Nona was mainly interested in the location of the speakers and not the big, empty room full of whirling art.

But once we located those (mostly above the walls and possibly on the ceiling), she was happy to walk around and sit, staring at the flowers as they grew and bloomed.

When the white petals on “Almond Blossom” began to fly off the branches, we were both impressed.

At one point, when all the surfaces went to one color, as a sort of reset, Nona asked, “Where are the pictures?”

The moving art room isn’t all the exhibit has to offer. There is also a room full of text-filled signs and hanging frames.

informative signs at immersive van gogh exhibit

Portland’s “Beyond Van Gogh” with a 2-year-old

informative signs at immersive van gogh exhibit

Portland’s “Beyond Van Gogh” with a 2-year-old

This room, while possibly informative, was not even remotely interesting to Nona, who said, almost immediately, “I want to go back.”

Back we went, to sit on the ground and experience “Starry Night” and “Starry Night Over the Rhone” developed into whirling, twinkling nights.

kid at immersive van gogh exhibit

Portland’s “Beyond Van Gogh” with a 2-year-old

kid at immersive van gogh exhibit

Portland’s “Beyond Van Gogh” with a 2-year-old

The full run of projections is about 35 minutes and it isn’t all as dramatic or exciting as “Almond Blossom” or the Starry Nights. Sometimes, it is portraits or other paintings all lined up, and those moments, for both the adult and the child, were less interesting.

When the people in the portraits blinked, the adult thought, “Really, that’s the best you could come up with?”

The show was at its best when the whole room was overtaken with one idea, whether it was a sketch filling with color, the night sky twinkling and the water rippling or flowers, in a rioting bloom.

Van Gogh, in a way, is beside the point here. The fun is in the immersion into sound, light and image. Who cares if it’s basically a bigger-than-life screensaver? Projecting screensavers on the wall could be fun too, with the right soundtrack.

In the end, we stayed to see the petals fall again, because it really was quite a cool effect.

Outside of Exhibit Hall E and back in the real world, I asked Nona, a child of the pandemic who has never been to a museum or even a library, what she thought of the exhibit.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “The flowers were beautiful.”

Who am I to argue with that?

selfie of mom and kid at immersive van gogh exhibit

Portland’s “Beyond Van Gogh” with a 2-year-old

Details: “Beyond Van Gogh,” Oregon Convention Center, 777 Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., $24.99 to $93.99, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (final entry an hour before close) Tuesday through Sunday, Nov. 19 to Jan. 9.

— Lizzy Acker

503-221-8052, lacker@oregonian.com, @lizzzyacker

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