Immersive Frida Kahlo | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazinel | June 2022 | www.scene4.com

"Immersive Frida Kahlo"
in San Francisco

Renate Stendhal

I don't know about you, but when I first heard about the big van Gogh multimedia show called "Immersive van Gogh," it gave me a shudder. In photographs I saw the hugely blown-up paintings with spectators literally walking through his modest bedroom, trudging through his spooky wheat fields with crows sweeping around their heads.  Las Vegas came to mind when I saw spectators sitting like tourists in his night café, surely doused in rousing French accordion tunes and chansons. What happens to the intimate connection with a painting, I wondered, with the real thing, in the silence of an art gallery or museum? How do the multimedia tourists handle the painter's suffering, brilliance, craziness that now becomes a large hall decoration? It seemed an almost indecent proposition.
I didn't go.


To my surprise, when Frida Kahlo became the next immersion "victim" in San Francisco, I was interested. For some reason, I thought, Kahlo's continuous gaze at herself in a mirror seemed to invite a different reaction. Like dancers studying themselves in mirrors to perfect their perfection, in Kahlo's self-portraits one shares the dichotomy of her being both subject and object of her art. One aspect of her self-portraits puts them "on show," exquisitely adorned and decorated and breathtakingly beautiful. The idea of seeing her face high as a house, after studying it on her votive-size
canvases, seemed enticing.

The event took place in a semi-industrial district of central San Francisco, in a worn-out warehouse or hangar, all ugly cement and metal. The place once served for pop concerts and a car dealership. The organizers, Universe Immersive, had made a minimal effort to be inviting. Left-overs of "Immersive van Gogh" were painted on the concrete of the dreary entryway. A neon window had Frida's name in garish colors; a striped Mexican rug served as the first foothold for selfies.


Some sixty visitors were encouraged to group at a Covid-safe distance in circles painted on the floor, with a bench or chairs. The show was projected all around the room, sometimes also covering floor and ceiling. Compared to the iMac experience, the height of the images was less impressive, perhaps 15 feet maximum. But the room was very large and in "perpetual motion" as images kept floating up and around, very close and very far. Sometimes Frida's paintings "unfolded" like ancient scrolls from the top of the walls – a visual effect that looked good but made little sense. Others rose like a wave from the floor. There was always so much going on that by chasing after one interesting painting or photograph you missed plenty of others. I missed precisely the picture I had noticed in the trailer and wanted to see: Frida in a wheel chair, painting at an easel. ,

The 40-minute spectacle seemed to run continuously. You knew it had ended when you recognized what you had already seen.


I was puzzling over this dramaturgical ambiguity when there was, after all, a sign of a beginning: an almost life-size cartoon bus, outlined in ghostly white, started moving sideways in front of a Mexico City street-scenery by night. The effect was startling. The cityscape moved to the left, the bus to the right. A loud sound of a slowing and accelerating engine accompanied flashes of film showing the road in the headlights of a moving vehicle. The mixture of animation, slide projection and film perfectly rendered what "immersive" multimedia stood for.

Clearly this was supposed to be the fatal bus ride ending in the collision with a trolley car. It was a long, slow, suspenseful scene, giving one time to imagine being on the bus and waiting for someone's life to shatter. By some miracle, eighteen year-old Frida survived the accident with a broken back, broken ribs, splintered leg and pierced pelvis. It was a biographical scene that every spectator surely understood. It was also a scene every spectator surely understood even without ever seeing a Kahlo painting in a museum; such is her iconic stature. But as everybody knows about the accident that happened in broad daylight, it's hard to fathom why the show added the drama of a night ride? More immersive, perhaps?


There was no further dramatic urgency in the otherwise lumbering show. The next long "scene" oddly pictured the Russian revolution and somehow morphed into the apparent industrialization of Mexico, with pretty pop-up pictures but no clear message. Was it to suggest that Frida believed in the ideals of communism and that Trotsky was her lover? Or just that Frida grew up on a modern Mexico and was a modern woman? Up came Frida's self-portrait with a cigarette, blowing a little stack of smoke out of her mouth. The painted Frida sucked the smoke cloud back in and blew it out again.



And then there finally was Diego Rivera, the big philandering husband, but instead of his murals we got a long sequence of scaffolding being erected all around the room to insistent sounds of hammering. Were we supposed to take this as Frida's broken body being hammered together in her many surgeries? I did not detect her painting of her body pierced by countless nails. Maybe I missed it – or it was missing. Like the great quantity of Frida's depictions of her looming death, her pain, her miscarriages and abortions. Apart from a floating skeleton and the occasional skull she painted into her self-portraits, her pain was absent from the show. On purpose, it turned out.


An art show placed outside the museum circuit and meant for the "general audience," had better leave out the nudity, blood and other harsher realities of Frida's oeuvre. The Frida Kahlo Family Trust (originated by her sister Cristina who apparently was one of Diego's lovers) teamed up with the production company Universe Immersive to get away from the "Suffrida," and present "a happy, empowered woman" instead.


The "happy" Frida got the rest of the 40-minute spectacle: all the familiar paintings of Frida surrounded by nature, jungles, monkeys and birds. The leaves in one of these paintings suddenly began to fall all over the walls, looking pretty and surely meant to be happy. The voluptuous jungle scene of another painting went "live" with hummingbirds zipping about and flowers nodding. Next, her painting of herself as a deer pierced by many arrows ran from wall to wall, but that was not enough animation. At first Frida's face appeared in profile, then she slowly turned her gaze at the spectator – another "immersive" dramatizing that distracted from the dark meaning of the painting and bordered on kitsch.


And so it went, hop-scotching between the dramatic and the whimsical (Frida-dresses swaying through the room), and the romantic (a spectacular starry night in saturated blue replete with bridal imagery), all of it accompanied in music from Mexican popular tunes. Where was the narrative? Where was the script?


What was the idea behind it, I kept wondering and not getting an answer. "Immersive Frida Kahlo" was neither a biography nor a serious portrait of the artist, but a conglomerate, a potpourri that remained opaque, mystifyingly meaningless and, in spite of her brilliant work on display, depressing.

Part of the problem may be that immersive multimedia spectacles are group creations by technicians, not artists or art curators. I imagine other famous artists' family trusts having their hands (and purses) in the game. With the cheapest ticket at $40, the fashion seems lucrative.


Immersive art shows outside museums or galleries have multiplied in the past few years. Diverse van Gogh and Picasso spectacles, Monet, Michelangelo, Klimt, Dali, Chagall -- artists who already drag a cottage industry of tchotchkes behind them and can't defend themselves as they are dead. But even today's street-to-museum artist Banksy is cashing in. As the first and only woman, Frida Kahlo will probably have to wait for a "sister" in fame who could tempt the crowds to "immerse" themselves. We could speculate: Georgia O'Keefe with her "happy" flowers? Louise Bourgeois in a Halloween horror spectacle of giant spiders? Could they sell 4.5 million tickets like van Gogh?

Some culture critics joked that the true immersion in these spectacles happens to your cell phone via Instagram. And not to forget, there always is the final immersion: the exit through the gift shop. Maybe a post-pop descendant of Andy Warhol will come up with a new "immersive" entirely based on the souvenir mugs and caps, handbags and umbrellas of the gift shop universe: the Immersive Remember Picasso, Immersive Gift van Gogh, Immersive Full Fridamania or, you name it.


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Scene4 Magazine - Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2022 Renate Stendhal
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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