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Europe without the hassle: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Van Gogh Alive

These past two years have been tough on all of us, and in your lamentations for the state of the arts industry, spare a thought for classic visual art fans. Those of us who cannot get our fix from online festivals have had to resort to hushing our families and putting on our most uncomfortable shoes and looking out the window just to get that art gallery feeling.

But, languish no longer, fellow art lovers! For, even those who are still unable or unwilling to book a trip to Europe now our borders are open can still experience that magical feeling right here in Perth. For the next few months there are not one, but TWO exhibitions of the work of European masters gracing our great city. I am, of course, talking about

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition


Van Gogh Alive.

Instead of travelling all the way to Italy or Amsterdam to see the originals, these two exhibitions bring them here. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is far more accessible in the Naval Store in Fremantle than in the Vatican City, and the exhibition-with-a-twist that has been wowing Van Gogh fans all over the world has just landed in Perth’s Supreme Court Gardens. Here’s what you need to know.

Even those who know nothing about the Sistine Chapel will still recognise Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam,’ where Adam and God reach out to each other sensually. It is one of more than fifty frescoes painted on the fourty-four-foot-high chapel ceiling. Not that you need to know any of this, as there is an educational video at the beginning explaining Michelangelo’s story. If you did already know this because you’ve been to the real thing, pre-pandemic, you’ll be pleased to know this time you won’t get a crick in your neck craning to see them. The panels are mounted on the wall or suspended from the ceiling at an easy-to-view angle, letting us get up close and examine Michelangelo’s brushstrokes, and the cracks in the five hundred-year-old plaster.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition

Alternatively, Van Gogh Alive is focused less on learning about the artist and works and more on the experiencing the art in a non-traditional manner. The entire building is part of the experience, most notably the café that is pulled straight from Van Gogh’s painting ‘Café Terrace At Night,’ paint strokes on the wall and all. Rather than present reproductions of the artworks for examination, visitors are immersed within them. The starry night room and the sunflower room are an instagrammer’s dream, with the floor, walls, and ceiling all contributing to your immersion into Van Gogh’s two most recognisable paintings.

Van Gogh Alive

Less instantly recognisable, probably due to their position three swimming pool lengths above eye level, are Michelangelo’s frescoes. Now that we can see them up close, the level of detail on these more than 900 muscled bodies depicted is astonishing. Especially when you consider Michelangelo could not have known his work would be photographed and put on the internet. Now his efforts can be appreciated without a ladder. My favourite has to be ‘The Great Flood’ which is one of the first ones you see hanging from the ceiling upon entering. It’s an amazing display of human kindness as people pull each other’s exquisitely detailed bodies from the water and cling together. This fortitude is at the forefront of the piece, with Noah’s ark further off in the background. It’s a dazzling and moving artwork, but it does beg the question: had Michelangelo never seen a boat before? Because I’m no engineer but I’m still pretty sure sticking a house on a platform doesn’t make it seaworthy. See, this is the kind of detail you cannot see from fourty feet away, which is perhaps why he has gotten away with it for so long.

Every fresco depicts a character or story from the Bible. The stories are explained in the audio guide with 1-2 minutes of commentary on each painting. This is a free app that can be downloaded on your phone when you arrive and listened to via headphones or just with the volume down low. The app is simple to use as every painting has a barcode to scan that starts the commentary, although I found the trick was to hold your phone further back from the code than you would expect otherwise it won’t scan. Alternatively, more traditional hand-held audio guides are included in your ticket and available at the entrance. A member of staff told me the app is better, though, in terms of audio quality.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition

The Van Gogh experience is a self-guided, with no audio, tour. Once you enter at your time slot (for capacity management) you have as much time as you like to wander around, take photos, buy merch, eat at the café, and get a drink from the bar. Oh, yeah, did I mention there’s a bar inside and you’re free to take your drinks around the experience with you? I know I saw at least one woman enjoying the video presentation in the gallery room with an entire bottle of wine in hand. Honestly? It’s what Vincent would have wanted.

The gallery presentation is the pièce de résistance of the experience. At the back is a huge room with screens on every wall, and some on the floor, with projections of Van Gogh’s art, and quotes from his letters, set to a pleasing classical soundtrack. The video runs on a fourty-minute loop, and while it does have an element of biography, moving through Vincent’s life and career with occasional explanation, you don’t need to start at the beginning. You’re free to wander the space, sit on a bench or the floor, or walk or dance on the floor mats. Kids particularly love this part, lying down on Vincent’s ginger face or dancing across sunflower heads. Everywhere you stand gives you a different view, and you may even catch a whiff of the pine trees and flowers of rural France, pumped into the gallery for a really immersive experience. I recommend finding a seat on the floor and letting it all wash over you. Not all paintings are best enjoyed in a quiet gallery with a squeaky floor, some are meant to be lived in.

Van Gogh Alive

We have two very different but equally fascinating exhibitions in Perth this month. They’re both great for a family day out or a cute date night, even if you’re not a classical art buff. Enjoy them while you still can!