In April of 2022, to celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary, my wife and I decided to go to and see the show “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience”, playing in the Graceland Exhibition Center. We had been meaning to catch the show for a while, and since we had never been to Memphis and it is only a six-hour drive from our home in Knoxville, we booked a room at the The Guest House at Graceland just across the street (Elvis Presley Boulevard, of course), and planned to spend a few days exploring downtown Memphis and Graceland as well.

The Van Gogh show was definitely the highlight of the trip for us. We found the show to be not only informative, but deeply moving as well. We left the exhibit feeling like we had a deeper appreciation for both the artist and his work.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that this year, for our tenth anniversary, we chose to take the 2.5 hour drive to Asheville NC to visit the Biltmore Mansion and attend the “Italian Renaissance Alive” display at the Amherst at Deerpark exhibition space on the Biltmore grounds.

The Biltmore Mansion, Asheville North Carolina

Why not? It seems like since the popularity of the Van Gogh show, there has been an explosion of “immersive”, “multi-sensory”, and “interactive” events touring the country. A quick search on the internet today uncovered at least fifteen in our general area, everything from classical art to modern experimental art – even an immersive show for the fans of the Netflix series “Stranger Things”.

Rita and I have spent some time in Italy, and have had the pleasure of viewing some much of the art in the show in person at the Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, Pitti Palace, the Vatican, and more, so we were ready to experience something special.

Unfortunately, for us, the show did not live up to our expectations.

It begins much like the Van Gogh exhibit, as you take your time walking through a room with displays that give information about some of the artist in the show, enlargement of some of the work, and a timeline showing the Renaissance periods that will be displayed.

Pre-show displays for Italian Renaissance

However, these displays seemed rather flat and life-less. They were much the same as you would find in any art museum or flipping through a textbook. By contrast, the opening of the Van Gogh show was not a brightly lit classroom; instead it was a darkened area that immediately felt like a different experience.

Instead of flat walls, the information was presented in brightly lit and colorful panels that floated in mid-air, interspersed with empty picture frames scattered randomly about. Each panel contained a detail of Van Gogh’s life, often illustrated with quotes from the artist or his contemporaries along with the art itself.

More colorful and interesting display for Van Gogh

Nevertheless, there was at least some interesting information displayed, so we were still hopeful as we moved on into the main room, where the multi-sensory show was running on a continuous loop. A sign at the door informed us that the “multi-sensory” aspect included aromas that would be injected into the air. My wife caught a musky scent at one point, but any aromas passed me by completely.

Boldly giving notice this show may stink

Like the Van Gogh show, there were floor-to-ceiling screens around all four walls, and several standing screens in the center of the floor. There was one big problem evident as soon as we walked in – there were bright spotlights on in the center of the room. These lights washed out some of the screens on the walls, and completely ruined any sort of immersive effect.

Who left the lights on?

What is worse, in the Van Gogh exhibit the art and displays moved equally around the room, even sliding across the floor. This enhanced the feeling of being in the art, and made it possible to enjoy the entire show no matter which direction you faced. Information was also presented by the audio track, which included people speaking in different languages, comments of experts, and music that merged with the scenes all around you (yes, including the Don McLean song).

Now THAT'S immersive - Van Gogh show

Not so at the Italian Renaissance Alive. Instead of including the floor as display space, there were three large white squares taped to the floor where images were projected. Everyone in the room was hesitant to step on them, and they bright overhead lights washed them out anyway, so they were really pointless. Also, I noticed at times the images displayed behind me were different from the ones in front. They did not always appear all over the room, so unless you were constantly turning, you would not see the entire show.

The music was chosen to match each era displayed, which is fair enough, but did not always match the mood of the art. There were no spoken words during the presentation either, instead a square of text would appear on one of the screens. Again, if you were not looking in that direction, you could miss it completely.

Both shows used animation in the art work, but where the Van Gogh exhibit used it to surprise you, or to show a progression from sketch to finished work, the animation in Italian Renaissance Alive seemed almost arbitrary.

For example, one of the most moving parts of the Van Gogh experience for us started with his painting “Almond Blossom”. As we heard the story of how as promised, his brother named his child Vincent Willem to carry on the artist’s name, Van Gogh sent this painting as a gift. The picture gradually expanded and reproduced, until all the screens were filled with the white blossoms. Then they began to stir in the wind, finally blowing loose and filling the room with floating white petals, projected everywhere, walls, floor and on the spectators as well.

There was nothing like that in this exhibit. Instead, the animation reminded me of Monty Python episodes, where Terry Gilliam would take figures from works of art and move their arms or legs back and forth.

Perhaps we were asking too much of this show. After all, the Van Gogh exhibit focused on the life and work of just one person. Although he produced over 900 paintings, his career spanned only ten years. It was easier to tell his story and show how his work evolved. The Renaissance show attempted to compress almost 500 years and dozens of artists into the same format, a much bigger challenge.

My overall impression is that while “Beyond Van Gogh” felt like a carefully planned and cleverly executed program, “Italian Renaissance Alive” seemed more like a hastily assembled imitation that lacked the attention to detail and the emotional impact we were anticipating.