Van Gogh La Nuit Etoilée – Starry Night – at les Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence is an extraordinary immersive art exhibition in an old limestone quarry deep in Provence. This breathtaking experience is the product of incredible new technology developed in 2012. Around 500 of Van Gogh’s works of art have been digitalised and are projected onto the walls, ceiling and floor of the immense tomb-like space accompanied by a stirring soundtrack. It’s hard to put into words just how powerful and moving this remarkable immersive exhibition in Provence is.
I had been to the Carrières de Lumières once before about 4 years ago to see an exhibition of Renaissance painters so when JF and I went recently I knew what to expect in terms of immersive experience. However, we entered the Van Gogh exhibition during a particularly dark and turbulent episode in the film and it not only took my breath away but quite literally made me fall over in awe! I sort of stumbled dizzily on the uneven floor. Not an elegant beginning but the genuine result of such a unique location.
You see, you enter the quarry exhibition space at a random stage in the show, not necessarily at the beginning, and not necessarily during a light part. But thankfully the images change rapidly and if you do walk in in the dark it doesn’t take long to get accustomed to the unusual surroundings. It’s a genuine WOW! moment, especially for a first-timer like JF so we took a little time to get our bearings marvelling in the vast volumes and incredible images swirling all around before moving further into the “auditorium”.
The exhibition takes you on a journey through Van Gogh’s life with works of art depicting his native Holland, Paris and Provence where he spent many of his final years. You will also see rolling projections of his writing taken from letters and old photos of Paris. The technology is pretty mind-blowing as, for example, parts of a painting may move while the main image stays static, such as blossom blowing off branches, crows flying overhead or even a hand plucking a musical instrument. Different images can be projected onto separate blocks or across the whole space at once. Do take a look at the videos I’ve uploaded to get an idea of how this works.
The paintings are so big you can see individual brushstrokes and examine the minute detail of different sections. Details that were barely noticeable in the original paintings come to life.
Images merge into one another, colours change and before your eyes is a completely different painting. Water ripples and lights reflect giving you the impression you’re on water, then without noticing the transition you’re in a cornfield or starry night. It’s phenomenal! Really!
The result is that you are completely drawn into the painting and become an actor in the show. Visitors moving around the quarry do not necessarily detract from the experience but are absorbed, though large groups of noisy school kids are slightly harder to ignore! The experience is both collective and individual.
Being a quarry, the exhibition space undulates through different levels with ramps and steps and random large blocks of limestone here and there. It feels organic. There are places you can perch to absorb the experience but as you are free to wander around, you’ll find yourself moving from place to place to take in different viewpoints.
There is no time limit on the ticket, once you’re in you can stay as long as you like and seeing as you’re unlikely to arrive as the show starts, you’re going to want to stay at least until you’ve got back to where you started. This is not as easy to recognise as it sounds because by moving around you are constantly seeing the paintings from different angles and perspectives.
Unless you start with a very specific image playing you may well not be aware you’re on the second round. I say this because it happened to us and it was only when we heard the same music again that we realized we’d gone full circle!
Talking of music, the soundtrack is a rousing eclectic mix ranging from Janis Joplin, Brahms, Vivaldi, and Smetana to Grieg, Puccini, Miles Davis and Nina Simone whose “Don’t let me be misunderstood” plays poignantly as self-portraits of the troubled artist fade in and out.
I haven’t even mentioned yet that as well as Van Gogh the show has a short film of Japanese art “Japon Rêvé, images du monde flottant” – Dreamed Japan, images of a floating world. It depicts Japanese works of art and decoration that fascinated and inspired Van Gogh such as the iconic Wave by Hokusai, delicate fans, colourful Geisha kimonos and the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossom.
It’s a gorgeous interlude; the movement of water, with giant octopuses and fish swimming around works perfectly in the organic space of the quarry. I loved this section just as much as the Van Gogh itself.
As I mentioned before you are unlikely to arrive at the start of either this film or the Van Gogh, but it doesn’t matter if, like for us, you see the Japon Rêvé in the middle of Van Gogh as the two complement each other perfectly.
The quarry, which was used for hundreds of years until 1935, providing limestone to build the neighbouring castle and village of Baux de Provence, is a vast space, 7000 sqm, 7-9 m high on average but soaring to 16 m at the highest point.
In the outside areas I felt like I was walking into an Egyptian tomb, so monumental are the proportions. The massive blocks of stone and wide rough walls make perfect natural screens to project the films on to but when the lights go on at the end of the show, the stark columns and massive cracks across the ceiling contrast strongly with the beauty and fluidity of the images you’ve just seen.
Films have been showing here since 1979 and every year there’s a different subject. In recent years the immersive exhibitions have included Gaugin, Monet, Renoir, Klimt, Picasso, Bosch, Brueghel, Arcimboldo and the Renaissance masters that I saw in 2015 Michael-Angelo, Leonard de Vinci and Raphaël. Next year there’ll be someone else…
Photos and even videos of the show only touch on the surface of how incredible this experience is. Nothing can replace actually being in it, because that’s what happens…you are enveloped in the art, in the music, in the whole experience. It surrounds you, above, below and even across your body.
The acoustics are amazing and the music so powerful you really do get completely absorbed like no other art show I’ve ever seen. The words grandiose and spectacular are thoroughly appropriate, for once not over-used. If you get the chance to go, you must!
While this time I went without children, last time, for the Renaissance Masters, I was accompanying a school trip of fifty 10 year olds and they all loved it! I can vouch that it is a kid-friendly experience and a unique way to interest children in art.
The Van Gogh Nuit Etoilée and Japon Rêvé exhibition lasts until 5 January 2020 and I’ll let you into a secret: almost exactly the same show is on in Paris at the Ateliers des Lumières until the end of 2019. Personally, I love the drama and poetry of the quarry location, but I’m sure if you can only get to Paris not Provence the experience will be pretty damn good too.
Facilities at the Carrières de Lumière include a nice-looking café (though I didn’t eat at it), a gift shop and toilets. There’s also a small cinema dedicated to Jean Cocteau who filmed parts of his film Le Testament d’Orphée here in 1959 and was influential in creating the artistic space that the quarry has become.
Tickets can (and should) be booked online especially if you want to go during the summer holidays. You reserve a timeslot, but once you’re in you can stay as long as you like, count on spending 1-2 hours. The exhibition is fully accessible. Click here for les Carrières de Lumières website.
Prices range from free for under 7s to 13€. There are discounts for seniors, students and groups.
It is cool inside the quarry, around 14°c, so think about bringing a light jumper/pashmina or at least long sleeves. The contrast with the outside on a hot day feels refreshing at first but can feel cold after an hour of standing around.
Opening hours: April, May, June, Sept, Oct: 9.30 am – 7 pm. July, Aug 9.30 am – 7.30 pm. Nov, Dec, Jan, March 10 am – 6 pm. Last entry 1 hour before closing time. Open every day (closed in February to set up the following exhibition).
Address: Les Carrières de Lumières, Route de Maillane 13520 Les Baux-de-Provence
JF and I couldn’t help but marvel over what the great artist himself would have made of such incredible technology, projecting his work over such a vast space in this immersive exhibition in Provence. What do you think? Have you been to a show like this? Please share your experiences.
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