Exhibitions by global art superstars have drawn huge crowds across the country – but in many cases none of their actual work is on display.
Digital shows starring Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Frida Kahlo have taken place in recent years.
Visitors walk through the rooms, which are illuminated by projections of the lives and works of the individual artists: Van Gogh’s sparkling starry night, Monet’s windswept woman with a parasol or Kahlo’s floral iconography.
The exhibitions have each attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.
However, the lack of actual paintings has caused art lovers to wonder if the exhibitions are merely imitations of works unavailable in Australia.
Jordi Sellas, the designer behind Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon, says he never set out to surpass or emulate Kahlo’s work.
“There’s nothing that can replace you in front of a real painting or a real work of art,” Sellas said.
“Our goal was to create a new work of art for the 21st century, not reproduce something made 100 years ago.”
As visitors explore the dark halls of the exhibition spaces, they take in the fundamental 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 color in pictures of Kahlo.
Sydney’s mum Ali Walsh visited Life of an Icon so she could spend time with her toddler Malia.
“If we put them in a gallery, they can be very difficult to keep busy,” she told AAP.
“But here the art changes, there’s light and shadow and color, and sitting down with music playing in the background and painting together – it’s just something we don’t do often.”
Malia loved the flower projections, rippling and blooming as she wandered across the work.
“I enjoy getting her on to things despite her young age and stimulating her mind,” Ms Walsh said.
Olga Boichak, media lecturer at the University of Sydney, says there is much to be gained by making or reinterpreting art.
“Especially for many younger people, these projects are rekindling public interest in art, making it Instagrammable, which is interesting,” said Dr. Boichak.
Over the past ten years, state capitals have exhibited authentic works by all three artists.
The Art Gallery of NSW held an exhibition featuring Kahlo and her adored partner Diego Rivera in 2016.
A year later, the National Gallery of Victoria showed Van Gogh and the Seasons with works from Amsterdam and Otterlo.
And in 2019, the National Gallery in Canberra hosted Monet: Impression Sunrise.
But associate professor of art history, Donna Brett, says the immersive digital exhibitions appeal in other ways.
“It’s not necessarily about access to the actual works – it’s not uncommon for them to come to Australia – but more about whether people feel they have access to the institutions that house them,” said she.
“It’s about whether people feel welcome or not.”
While immersive experiences can make art more accessible to the general public, according to Dr.
“There are so many Australian artists who are interested in turning their art into these interactive exhibitions. But it’s a question of popularity, and in the digital age, popularity is very unevenly distributed.”
It is 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 serve 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 seeing this, maybe you are.”