Van Gogh vs. Picasso: SF’s battle for immersive art


“Immersive” art exhibitions have sparked a controversial question in San Francisco: Can performances, which surround viewers with projected images and amplified music, be art? Or is it just entertainment or even exploitation?

Even casual art lovers may have been dipped under the rising waters of the immersive trend, which has brought at least six major current shows to The City. Here’s why San Francisco is a particularly fitting place to end this feud.

The artistic imagery projected here originated nearly 150 years ago, when English photographer Eadweard Muybridge projected moving images of a galloping horse in San Francisco to wow viewers in what may have been the first of these exhibits. Later, truly immersive art became a staple of modern music here, when the swirling colors of psychedelic light shows burst into 1967’s Summer of Love.

And while the de Young Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Asian Art Museum (which houses a critically acclaimed immersive show), have long established The City as a capital of the fine arts, it is also true that The City’s 1960s rock ‘n’ roll posters and many Mission murals have traversed artistic tradition to meet the spectators where they are.

As the debate begins.

“I think these exhibits are a travesty,” Professor Alexander Nemerov, head of Stanford University’s department of art and art history, told The Examiner. “A way of not seeing art, of not even caring about it, really.”

Nemerov believes that “gazing at one of the actual paintings can be an imaginative journey of incalculable power” that far transcends immersive art exhibits.

Nemerov’s objections may be particularly applicable to Lighthouse Immersive, producers of a Van Gogh exhibition drive-in in Toronto, and San Fransisco Expo, who they’ve dubbed “Fran Gogh,” and who hosts $55 yoga classes in the swirling animations of the exhibit. Lighthouse also featured a new Frida Kahlo exhibit at SVN West at Van Ness and Market streets, the site of the Immersive Van Gogh show.

Lighthouse Immersive did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment from The Examiner. One of the producers said on a company website that Lighthouse spent a lot of money to present the art well. Producer Corey Ross said in an interview that “Artistically and in terms of execution, each show is an individual project. Most of what we deploy is permanent. We don’t do pop-ups, so it’s very expensive for us, but it also provides a better experience for customers because we’re investing in the sites.

Ross also noted the company’s extensive marketing efforts, a review of the shows. “I picked all the cities I thought were good bets, and we moved quickly to put the shows on sale. It was a high level of ‘lightning scaling,’ as I call it. Ross also said, “We’ve gone from a group that spends maybe $5,000 a month on Facebook to a group that spends a million on Facebook!”

Is there any common ground between large-scale marketing and fine art? The producers of a new show in The City believe so.

Imagine Picasso filled the Mission’s former rock armory with more than 200 images of Pablo Picasso projected onto towering walls and massive origami-like sculptures. Imagine that Picasso claims to be more faithful to art than other shows, and indeed possesses significant good faith.

Participants view some of Pablo Picasso’s paintings on a large wall during the Imagine Picasso experience. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The artwork was licensed to the show’s producers by the Picasso estate, and the artist’s grandson, Olivier Picasso, said via video conference at the opening that “I’m sure if he was alive today, he would be very happy” with the exhibit. Information about Picasso’s career and paintings, created with the help of a renowned Picasso historian, is projected in hovering tableaux throughout the show, providing an educational aspect that is missing in other shows.

“When you do it, you have to respect the painters and the paintings,” Annabelle Mauger, one of the creators of the Imagine Picasso exhibit at the Armory, told The Examiner. “Some exhibition directors don’t know art history. They are just technicians. I have been doing this job for over 20 years. This kind of show was invented by my grandfather in 1977.”

Mauger credits his grandfather, Albert Plécy, with creating the artistic experience shown in 1977 during an exhibition called the Cathedral of Images in an old abandoned stone quarry in Provence, France. She and the others who put on the Picasso show think it’s different from the immersive shows at The Lighthouse.

“It’s a deeper dive,” Mindi Levine, general manager of the Imagine Picasso show, told The Examiner.

Is this enough to redeem immersive art in this duel of exhibitions in San Francisco? San Francisco still decides.

The Picasso exhibit, which opened Feb. 9, drew around 1,000 people on busy days, Levine said, with many noting the art history information boards that make up about half of the exhibition. “We are often told that. There is more than that. Some critics agree.

“Imagine Picasso proves there is an alternative to the funhouse model of immersive screens,” KQED’s Sarah Hotchkiss wrote on February 11.

Nemerov, the Stanford professor, says a better immersive show isn’t enough. “Some of these immersive shows may be more educational than others, but education isn’t the point. To be alive and alone with the art is the goal,” he said, adding, “Then we’re all alone, and we come out better, worse, or the same, depending on what we give, what we ask for. , what we feel.”

And, as always, there are technicians who just want to disrupt everything. Futurists say the answer is to eliminate brushstrokes on canvas entirely and go straight to digital and interactive. “There will be masterpieces in the art of augmented reality,” predicted Ray Kallmeyer, hologram artist and producer of the immersive Verse exhibit at the Old Mint.

San Francisco’s debate over the coexistence of education and entertainment in projected art is unlikely to end soon. The first lively art debate in The City did not.

In 1929, The Examiner ran a front-page story about the need to connect movies, derided by some as vapid, with a more educational approach at Stanford. Noting the Muybridge films that screened 50 years earlier in The City, legendary producer Louis B. Mayer said during a speech at Stanford that the projected images could be rescued from the realm of empty entertainment to become culturally significant.

“Moving pictures have been overlooked as a medium of education,” Mayer said in The Examiner. Stanford could bring new scholarship to the fledgling art form, he said, which was “appropriate because the industry got its start on the Stanford campus.”

Mayer’s words may have been influential: the projected imagery evolved, amid much contention and debate. In the Stanford audience that day in May 1929 were members of a burgeoning and culturally ambitious group of filmmakers who were already organizing efforts to elevate moving images into the art world. A week later, the group organized the first Oscars.

The Imagine Picasso immersive experience includes an educational component about the artist.  (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The Imagine Picasso immersive experience includes an educational component about the artist. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

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