Beyond Monet: An immersive art show about intense individualism

The latest digital art experience to hit Toronto plays up the critical backlash to the French Impressionist painter


BEYOND MONET: THE IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, North Building (255 Front West). $30-$100. To October 3. monettoronto.com


In the 1995 movie Clueless, the lead character Cher Horowitz described the blurry style of French painter Claude Monet like this: “From far away, it’s okay, but up close it’s a big old mess.”

It’s hardly the first cutting remark directed at the founder of Impressionism, who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a new “immersive” art experience world premiering at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre this weekend makes clear, critics initially hated Monet’s obsessive focus on his own particular conceptions of reflection and light.

The Impressionist movement was all about rendering one’s own perception, rather than an accurate representation of the world. Per a quotation featured in the show, the art critic Albert Wolff once described Monet’s work as “the appalling spectacle of human vanity drifting into insanity.”

It’s appropriate given that the recent trend in “immersive” digital projection experiences based on copyright-free artwork by European masters has also been widely derided by critics as gimmicky.

Audiences seem to think otherwise. Beyond Monet is the second major event of its kind running in Toronto. Last summer, Immersive Van Gogh opened at the former Toronto Star printing plant, and it’s continuing its run this summer. The exhibition has also expanded to several cities, including San Francisco and New York, where Madonna caught the show in June.

These immersive experiences feel like digital reimaginings of the Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama’s analog Infinity Mirror Rooms, a physically distanced art show that became a social media craze before the words “physically distanced” were popular vernacular: You go into the space alone or with one or two other people, let the images wash over you and then share what you saw on social media.

Similar to Kusama’s trajectory, Van Gogh and Monet were ignored or derided early on only to be later (or in Van Gogh’s case, posthumously) vindicated as visionaries. Mental health struggles, loneliness, intense subjectivity and the concept of infinity are present in the work of all three artists. Beyond Monet specifically dwells on Impressionism’s intense individualism, and the backlash the style elicited when the artist was alive.

People watch the immersive art show Beyond Monet
Courtesy of Beyond Monet

How immersive is Beyond Monet?

There are a few differences between Immersive Van Gogh and Beyond Monet, but the main one is that Beyond Monet is full of historical context that clearly spells out the show’s themes. The former is strictly a sensory experience with little background on the artist provided.

After filling out a COVID survey and heading to the third floor of the Convention Centre, you enter the exhibition through large black curtains.

The first room you encounter is inspired by Monet’s Water Lilies. It’s a pink-and-purple-hued hall full of flat reflective ponds, wooden bridges and hanging placards with short paragraphs outlining the significance of Monet’s life and work. The sound of babbling brooks, chirping birds and ambient, spa-like music attempts to add motion to this oddly stilted, stage-y analog introduction to his landscapes, seascapes and industrial scenes.

This room paints Monet as a misunderstood radical attempting to shift from a kind of realist objectivity and emphasis on information to a style that accentuated subjectivity and atmosphere. His way of questioning the accepted, authoritative view of the world flummoxed critics, and feels of a piece with the various cultural reckonings and artistic reassessments happening today.

Next, you walk down a darkened hall shrouded in dangling reflective plastic strips and enter the a large, oval-shaped room. A 360-degree projection cycles through Monet’s paintings, blurring, blending, cross-fading and swirling the work into mood pieces that run a gamut from calming to anxious. You can sit on a large gazebo at the centre of the room, or wander around dark reflective distancing circles on the ground, some of which are elevated as seating.

Each section of the show, which repeats on a loop, is punctured by quotations that underscore Monet’s renegade subjectivity, as well as various reactions to the work. At one point, pull-quotes from critics are contrasted with quotes of the artist describing his intentions.

As you’d expect, the abstracted nature of Monet’s paintings leads to some beautiful, eye-popping and psychedelic animated moments. But Normal Studio artists Mathieu St-Arnaud and Félix Fradet-Faguy’s techniques sometimes veer into cookie-cutter motion graphics, particularly when it comes to animating scenes of boats and waves.

These immersive shows all have similar tricks, but Beyond Monet doesn’t quite transcend its environment. Whereas Immersive Van Gogh took over an industrial relic and transformed it completely, this show can’t hide its convention-hall trappings. From the carpet to the curtains, and the visible lighting rigs, these elements take you out of the experience. There’s also one chair-shaped metallic surface ideal for an Impressionist selfie; it also conceals the emergency fire equipment.

In other words, Beyond Monet could’ve been a bit more immersive.

But what the show lacks in finesse, it makes up for with thoughtful curatorial framing. The painter’s work, as one card in the Water Lilies hall explains, articulates a “desire to share and communicate what simultaneously sets us apart and unites us; our perception of the world around us.”

On one hand, these immersive shows are ideal for pandemic entertainment as they’re spacious enough to weather potential rollbacks in capacity restrictions.

But thematically they also straddle lines between solitary and collective experience; our urges toward hyper-individualism and connection; and the push-pull between personal autonomy and collective responsibility. You’re essentially walking into a liminal space between these extremes in which the current cultural tension is abstracted and reflected back at you as mass entertainment.

@KevinRitchie

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