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‘Frida,’ the latest immersive show to land in Boston, is a spectacle — but is it art?

‘This is a new thing, for new generations,’ says Mara De Anda, whose great-aunt was Frida Kahlo. ‘I think maybe this is the new museum — it’s not just about Frida’s paintings, but how she lived.’

Visitors preview the "Frida: Immersive Dream" at the Saunders Castle at Park Plaza.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Florence and the Machine’s cover of “Stand By Me” boomed through the interior of the Saunders Castle at Park Plaza as Mara R. Kahlo and her daughter, Mara De Anda, stood surrounded on all sides by their respective aunt and great-aunt, Frida Kahlo. A grainy black-and-white scene of a Mexican village collapsed into shards, then dissolved into a montage of the artist’s family photos. Mara Kahlo’s eyes teared up, and she clasped her daughter’s hand tightly.

“I could see my grandmother, my whole family up there,” she said, after the 40-minute film loop fell silent. “Frida is of course an artist, but she’s also a person. And in this, you can see the real human being.”

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Kahlo and De Anda, both principals in the Mexico City-based Frida Kahlo foundation, were in Boston Wednesday to give their final blessing to “Frida: Immersive Dream,” which would be opening at the Castle the next day. It joins an already crowded field of art-inspired immersive “experiences” already here: two Van Gogh-themed shows, one in Dorchester and another in the South End. But the local scene is just a blip in a larger, fast-growing industry.

The past two years have seen dozens of such projects; there are five on Van Gogh alone. He died in 1890, meaning the artist’s work has not been protected by copyright since 1960, according to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; a spokesperson there explained that reproduction rights are only retained by an artist’s estate for 70 years after death. It makes his work and countless others’ free and fair game. That, and Van Gogh’s name-brand recognition, has made him the immersive field’s poster child: One version or another has traveled to such disparate centers as Dubai and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Major American and European cities are on the circuit, and Boston is one of them. Lighthouse Immersive, the Toronto-based company that produced “Frida: Immersive Dream,” has hopes of making the Castle its semi-permanent home for its slate of productions, which include a current production on Gustav Klimt and its own Van Gogh show (which is neither of the two currently running here).

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But “Frida: Immersive Dream” is different. It’s the product of a partnership with the foundation, which retains exclusive rights to her work (for now, at least; Kahlo died in 1954, 68 years ago). When I asked De Anda, a foundation board member, if she and Kahlo, its chair, were hesitant when Lighthouse approached them, she brightened. “No, we were excited,” she said. “This is a new thing, for new generations. I think maybe this is the new museum — it’s not just about Frida’s paintings, but how she lived.”

The Consul General for Mexico in Boston, Alberto Fierro Garza, discusses "Frida: Immersive Dream" at the Saunders Castle at Park Plaza. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Such comments send a collective chill up the spines of museum directors the world over. The popularity of the still-nascent immersive field can’t be denied: On the strength of its Van Gogh project, Lighthouse told me it had sold nearly 5 million tickets around North America, grossing around $200 million. Mario Iacampo, artistic director of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” another project now running in Dorchester, told the Wall Street Journal in December that the show had sold around 3.5 million tickets in 13 cities. Just for reference, the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston said it sold 1.35 million tickets in 2019, its last pre-pandemic year.

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Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA’s director, was circumspect about the growing immersive phenomenon. “One could feel that they were both authentic within the terms they set for themselves — the museum experience, with real works of art, and the immersive experience as a sort of entertainment,” he said. “I’m not afraid of spectacle. But the spectacle for me starts to fall apart when it’s not grounded in the voice of the artist. I’m not going to say that I’m strongly for or against it. But I think there’s a big challenge, which is to make the distinction very clear between them.”

In Toronto, I met Corey Ross, one of Lighthouse’s founders. He calls any concern that immersives might make museums obsolete unfounded. “I don’t see them as competitive. I see them as as complementary,” he said. Lighthouse has a permanent space on the Toronto waterfront where they can run three projects at once; two, one on Van Gogh and another on Klimt, are on view right now. For him, the projects are much like “reading a book about Van Gogh, or going to see a movie about Van Gogh. These are just different ways of engaging with and experiencing the artist.”

It’s important to view the immersive phenomenon less as a genre and more as a medium. The projects vary dramatically, with hugely divergent degrees of quality and production value, just like any movie, TV show, or video game.

But as someone who gets a contact high from the silent, still experience of being in front of a painting I love, I’ve approached the medium with doubt and caution. The Klimt show was no cure. I walked in to the distinctive wails of David Bowie singing “Heroes” in German. (Don’t ask me — Bowie lived in West Berlin in the 1970s; Klimt died in Vienna in 1918.) Sky-high fragments of the artist’s paintings quivered all around, followed by a quick fade to black and then a bolt of lightning that snaked its way around the perimeter of the space.

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It seemed to confirm my general feeling that immersives often don’t have much to do with the actual art, and surely not as the artist intended. One near-universal trope of the medium is nothing sits still: Paintings are broken down into bits and pieces, which then quake, or dissolve, or morph into one thing or another. In the Klimt production, the pregnant red-haired woman in “Hope I,” maybe Klimt’s most famous work, appeared to multiply in an array of sizes, one of them a good two stories tall. Her face melted into something skull-like as, confusingly, a pair of nude live-action dancers emerged from the video murk. For several minutes, the dancers groped and nuzzled, towering and duplicated on screens all around the room.

Ross, the Lighthouse co-founder, was an established music and theater promoter when he saw “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” a project by the French production team Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron — one of the two currently on view in Boston right now — while in Paris in 2019. He quickly saw the form’s broader potential as an entertainment platform.

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“Sports leagues have called us, movie companies have called us,” he said. “There’s a lot of interest in trying to figure out how to get involved in this from a lot of different places.” Among the many potential partners he’s been speaking with — which he says include George Lucas and Madonna — are two major international museums, which he declined to name.

In Boston, Ross’s partner, Svetlana Dvoretsky, was on hand to squire Kahlo and De Anda through the Frida immersive. Gyrating tableaux cobbled from snippets of Kahlo’s paintings and drawings towered above; one instantly recognizable work, “Diego on my Mind (Self-Portrait as a Tehuana),” with Kahlo’s forehead embedded with a likeness of Diego Rivera, with whom she shared a fractious marriage, faded into view from a starry sky swimming with multicolored clouds. Visual signposts — stylized hammers and sickles, a nod to her Communist leanings; images of workers, a reflection of her allegiances to Indigenous Mexicans and the working poor — faded in and out of the visual typhoon.

When all was quiet, Dvoretsky shrugged off the disdain that art immersives sometimes provoke. “We understand that we’re not a museum, we understand that we’re not bringing the real artifacts to people,” she said. “But we strongly believe that we are extending and popularizing the art in general.”

Maybe. But last fall, I found myself at the Strand Theater in Dorchester for “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” — not to be confused with “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition,” still running at the SoWa Power Station — a thrown-together affair of badly-reproduced paintings with a clumsily-animated video of his work in close-up.

"Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" at the Strand Theatre.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

I was more let down than I expected, which is saying something. But the show was clarifying, too. I immediately saw the “experience” as an elaborate non-linear documentary film. And like any film, its quality would depend on its creative team, not the medium itself. While the version at the Strand was for me a one-star review, “Imagine Van Gogh,” at the SoWa Power Station, was something else entirely.

In a space maybe triple the size of The Strand, sky-high screens towered in every direction, brimming with still images of the artist’s exuberant brushstrokes. They were just high-resolution photographs of the works’ surfaces in gigantic close-up — no cloying quotations or voiceover, no hectic dissolve sequences or animated layers chopping his canvases into digital bits.

Visitors at "Imagine Van Gogh" at the SOWA Power Station. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

I went with my family, wanting perspective on an experience I fully expected to loathe. But I didn’t need it — standing next to a giant column of Van Gogh’s impastoed skies or the fecund lushness of his roses and tulips was unexpectedly beguiling.

It was an experience of painting divorced entirely from the one I had cherished for most of my life, and I didn’t hate it. But there was something else, too. My 11-year old son, a boy of few words at the best of times, spontaneously uncorked a litany of Van Gogh bio facts in surprising detail — how he had lived at Arles in the south of France, how he never sold a painting while he was alive despite his brother Theo’s undying efforts to promote him, how he severed his own ear in a fit of despair.

Whatever the case, here was a kid who had been dragged to museums since before he could walk — and who would muster the same enthusiasm for the experience as he might for detention, or the dentist — finally enraptured. We had common ground: I could tell him about Van Gogh’s intuitive sense of color and technique that had made him a profound influence on art-making for decades; he could tell me about Arles and ears. We talked and listened, taking turns. For us, this was new turf.

For me, even the best of these shows (see: “Imagine Van Gogh”) won’t come near to seeing the work itself. But I can finally see some value in them. For those who only go to a museum kicking and screaming, bored or intimidated or both, this 21st-century interface might spark their interest.

Whatever the uneven beginnings of immersives, they deserve a little time, says Teitelbaum.

“This is an idea in its infancy,” he said. “Maybe staying with the question is more important than endorsing or dismissing it. Who knows where it’s going to lead?”



Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.