Van Gogh vs. Picasso: S.F.’s battle over immersive art

With a 150-year history of projected art, The City plays referee in a heated aesthetic debate

“Immersive” art exhibitions have bubbled up a divisive question in San Francisco: Can the shows, which surround viewers with projected images and amplified music, be fine art? Or are they just entertainment — or even exploitation?

Even casual art aficionados may have been dunked under the rising waters of the immersive trend, which has brought at least six current major shows to The City. Here’s why San Francisco is a uniquely appropriate place to hash out this feud.

Projected art imagery was born here nearly 150 years ago, when English photographer Eadweard Muybridge projected animated images of a galloping horse in San Francisco to astonished viewers in what may have been the first of such displays. Later, truly immersive art became a staple of modern music here, when the swirling colors of psychedelic light shows rocked out in 1967’s Summer of Love.

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

So let the debate begin.

“I think these exhibits are a travesty,” professor Alexander Nemerov, chair of the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University, told The Examiner. “A way of not seeing the art, not even caring about it, really.”

Nemerov believes “contemplating one of the actual paintings can be an imaginative journey of untold power” that far transcends immersive art shows.

Nemerov’s objections may be particularly applicable to Lighthouse Immersive, producers of a drive-through Van Gogh exhibition in Toronto, and the San Francisco exhibition, which they dubbed “Fran Gogh,” and which holds $55 yoga classes inside the swirling animations of the exhibit. Lighthouse has also brought a new Frida Kahlo exhibition to 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 by The Examiner for comment. One of the producers said on a company website that Lighthouse has gone to great expense to present the art well. Producer Corey Ross said in an interview with Lighthouse Immersive’s smART Magazine that “Artistically and in terms of execution, each exhibit is an individual project. Most of what we’re rolling out is permanent. We’re not doing pop-ups, so it’s very expensive for us but it also delivers a higher quality experience for the customers because we are investing in the venues.”

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

Is there a middle ground between ‘blitz-scaling’ marketing and fine art? The producers of a new show in The City believe so.

Imagine Picasso has filled the rocky old Armory in the Mission with more than 200 of Pablo Picasso’s images projected across soaring walls and massive origami-like sculptures. Imagine Picasso purports to be truer to the art than other shows, and does indeed boast significant bona fides.

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

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

The artworks have been licensed to the show’s producers by the Picasso estate, and the artist’s grandson, Olivier Picasso, said via video conference at the opening, “I’m sure if he was alive today, he would be very happy” with the exhibition. Information about Picasso’s career and paintings, created with help from a renowned Picasso historian, are projected in soaring tableaus throughout the show, providing an educational aspect lacking 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 exhibition at the Armory told The Examiner. “Some of the directors of the exhibitions don’t know art history. They are just technicians. I’ve been doing this job for more than 20 years. This kind of show was invented by my grandfather in 1977.”

Mauger credits her grandfather, Albert Plécy, with creating the projected art experience in 1977 at a show called the Cathedrale d’Images in an old abandoned stone quarry in Provence, France. She and the others who are putting on the Picasso show believe it’s different from The Lighthouse immersive shows.

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

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

The Picasso exhibit, which opened Feb. 9, has drawn around 1,000 people on busy days, Levine said, with many complimenting the tableaus of art history information that make up about half of the exhibition. “We’re being told that a lot. There’s more to it.” Some critics agree.

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

Nemerov, the Stanford professor, says a better immersive show is not enough. “Some of these immersive shows may be more educational than others, but education is not the point. Being alive and alone with the art is the point,” he said. “Then we are all on our own, and we come out better, worse, or the same, depending on what we give, what we ask, what we feel.”

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

The San Francisco debate over whether education and entertainment can coexist in projected art is unlikely to end quickly. The first animated art debate in The City didn’t.

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

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

Mayer’s words may have been influential: Projected imagery did evolve, amid many feuds and debates. In the Stanford audience that day in May of 1929 were members of a fledgling and culturally ambitious group of filmmakers who were already organizing efforts to elevate moving pictures in the art world. One week later, the group put on the first Academy Awards.

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

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

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