The digital shows taking art’s superstars to the masses


Exhibitions headline by global art superstars have drawn huge crowds across the country – but in many cases, none of their actual work is on show.

Digital shows featuring Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Frida Kahlo have been held in recent years.

Visitors walk through rooms illuminated by projections of each artists’ lives and works: Van Gogh’s scintillating Starry Night, Monet’s windswept Woman with a Parasol or Kahlo’s floral iconography.

The exhibitions have each attracted crowds in their hundreds of thousands.

Yet the lack of any real paintings has led art enthusiasts to ask whether the shows are just imitations of works not available in Australia.

Jordi Sellas, the designer behind Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon, says he never intended to one-up or mimic Kahlo’s work.

“There’s nothing that can replace you in front of a real painting or a real artwork,” Sellas said.

“Our aim was to create a new art piece for the 21st century, not to reproduce something that was done 100 years ago.”

As visitors explore the dark halls of the exhibition rooms, they tour the foundational events of Kahlo’s life.

In one room, guests don a virtual reality headset to see the world as a bedridden surrealist. Next, intricate dresses embroidered with Tehuana symbols line the perimeter, and finally viewers are invited to sit and colour in pictures of Kahlo.

Sydney mother Ali Walsh visited Life of an Icon so she could spend time with her toddler Malia.

“If we take her to a gallery, it can be very hard to keep her engaged,” she told AAP.

“But here the art is changing, there’s light and shade and colour, and being able to sit down with music in the background and draw together – it’s just something that we don’t get to do very often.”

Malia loved the flower projections that rippled and bloomed as she wandered across the work.

“I enjoy bringing her to things even though she’s young and stimulating her mind,” Ms Walsh said.

University of Sydney media lecturer Olga Boichak says a lot can be gained when art is remade or reinterpreted.

“Especially for a lot of younger people, these projects reinvigorate public interest in art, they make it Instagrammable, which is interesting,” Dr Boichak said.

Over the last decade, state capitals have displayed authentic works by all three artists.

The Art Gallery of NSW hosted an exhibition featuring Kahlo and her revered partner Diego Rivera in 2016.

A year later, the National Gallery of Victoria put on Van Gogh and the Seasons with works from Amsterdam and Otterlo.

And in 2019, the National Gallery in Canberra held Monet: Impression Sunrise.

But associate professor of art history Donna Brett says the immersive digital exhibitions appeal in a different way.

“It is not necessarily about access to the actual works – it isn’t uncommon for them to come to Australia – but more about whether or not people feel that they have access to the institutions that house them,” she said.

“It’s about whether or not people feel welcome.”

While immersive experiences can make art more approachable for the general public, Dr Boichak says they end up spotlighting those who are already popular rather than emerging artists.

“There are so many Australian artists who are interested in turning their art into these interactive exhibitions. But it is a matter of popularity, and in the digital age, popularity is distributed very unevenly.”

It’s unfortunate for artists from different countries whose works are not part of the classical canon, or who are emerging artists.”

But Sellas believes his exhibition can act as a gateway to the rest of the art world.

“We are an entrance. Maybe you’re not interested in going to a museum to see paintings but after you see this, you might be.”



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