To find the answer, we went to the source, Annabelle Mauger, co-director of Imagine Picasso. We tried to understand what was different from the other “immersive” experiences currently on view. 

First of all, Annabelle Mauger is considered a pioneer in this form of events as she started 20 years ago at Cathedrale d’Images in Provence. 

While moving from the South of France, she decided to keep the concept alive and did it with a hand-picked team.

This is how she conceived Imagine Picasso in collaboration with the Picasso Succession, Olivier Picasso, the grandson of the artist, Androula Michael, a recognized art historian, and the famous architect Rudy Ricciotti (MUCEM in Marseille) with whom Annabelle worked since 2011. 

She directed this ambitious project with a great level of endorsements and the technical agility of Julien Baron, her business partner.

Tell us about you and this exhibition?

“This specific exhibition breaks all the rules of an immersive show. It all started 20 years ago when I worked at Cathedrale d’Images in Provence. The space I used then were old quarries offering me 17 meters high walls to project images. 

But when I had to conceive the Picasso exhibition in a much lower ceiling space in Lyon, I faced two significant obstacles. Imagine Picasso SF

The first was to move from a fully vertical environment to somewhat horizontal space. 

When I reached out to Rudy Riciotti, I shared my concern with him, particularly the fact that compared to the previous site, the room’s height was dramatically reduced. The projection space was very different. He liked the challenge, and as an architect, he found the go around; his answer was to conceive various tilted modules that we use now to project images leveraging obliques.

The second obstacle is that we ended up with very long horizontal panels. 

And there, I found the solution while talking with Androula Michael, who wrote multiple books about Picasso. I remembered that during a conversation, she had reported the following anecdote: while a curator was asking Picasso how he would like to see his paintings exposed, he answered, “it doesn’t matter.” 

Indeed, in an artist’s studio, the canvases are posed “anyhow,” upside down, sideways… 

The video projection makes it possible to avoid gravity and therefore to expose “anyhow.” 

Imagine Picasso Demoiselle AvignonAt the end of the day, the constraints of the space gave the team a lot of freedom, a freedom that museums cannot afford. Try to ask the NY MOMA to exhibit Les Demoiselles d’Avignon horizontally! 

With video, we can afford this freedom because it lets us focus the audience on different details of the canvases.”

Can you compare your work to that of a curator who interprets the artist’s work? 

“I compare myself to a conductor… I know more or less how to play each instrument but not well enough to be a soloist. 

Technically, I rely on Julien Baron, who manages more than 80 screens and 70 projectors for this installation. 

But for the selection of the art, I work with Androula Michael, who knows Picasso’s work inside out. And there is Rudy Ricchiotti, who helps me to apprehend the space and the volumes. 

So, I’m the event’s co-director, but this is really a team effort.”

How do you compare with Atelier des Lumieres (Paris) and other “immersive” experiences?

“I come from Cathedrale d’Images, the original immersive show created by Albert Plecy, called Image Totale© that took its roots in 1977.

imagine picasso SFWhat you see in Atelier des Lumieres is a moving image. The original painting is modified. In my case, I do not change the artwork; I zoom in on a piece of artwork or a drawing, considering that the painting is already a movement. 

While endorsing the exhibition, The Picasso Succession has formally forbidden me to add any movement. And for me, the movement is in the brushstroke. I often use the example of the Last Supper from Leanardo Da Vinci, where the apostles are in the movement even if the painting, by definition, is still. 

The other significant difference is that in most immersive experiences, you see an infinite replication of a piece of a painting on the floor, on the walls… It’s like if a text was composed of a single word and indefinitely replicated. 

With Imagine Picasso, we have selected different paintings, and it’s as if they were answering each other to compose a complete sentence.”

Immersive seems to be the new normal? How do you position yourself vis-a-vis this trend?

“For sure, the word immersive is overused and not new. Museums crafted this term in the 80′ in an attempt to renew the concept of art exhibitions. One of the pioneers was the Grand Palais in Paris when they started staging their exhibitions and called them immersive. Back then, they were not using video at all. 

I prefer the term “Image Totale” for what we do. Olivier Picasso, the grandson of the artist, gave me the ultimate compliment while visiting the exhibition: “I know the work of my grandfather like the back of my hand, still looking at the exhibition, I feel like I’m somewhat in his head.” “

Do you think this is a way to democratize art and bring a new audience to discover artists?

“It’s not a secret that museums are not precisely trendy in particular for younger generations.  Our exhibitions propose a digital experience, but we try to keep them pedagogical.

For example, before entering the exhibition, the visitor goes through a room that explains Picasso’s life and the different times of his art. We do it with a mix of digital and classic media to introduce the visitor to the artist’s world.

In the same logic, the last room presents a reproduction of the +200 artworks displayed in the main room. Without pretending to be a lecture about Picasso, we intend to provide a context.” 

Have you ever envisioned a hybrid exhibition with a digital experience juxtaposed with actual paintings?

“When we started to work with Androula Michael, we knew that this digital experience would allow us to create the ideal exhibition as we are leveraging not less than 200 paintings; 

There is no way that the Picasso Museum in Paris would let us borrow its art or that Madrid would lend Guernica.

We hope that after seeing Imagine Picasso, the visitors will feel like visiting the original art when they have the opportunity to do so.”

What is your next project after Picasso?

“My next adventure is focused on Claude Monet, and the exhibition is currently in Montreal. 

Monet is a great candidate for a Totale Image© project. His Orangerie water lilies were the very first immersive experience ever. Water lilies paintings had no frames, measured up to 17 meters long, and were on walls surrounding the visitors!”

Imagine Picasso will run until March 27th, 2022… No time to waste.  

Dates: from Feb 9th, through April 9th, 2022
Address: Skylight at the Armory – 1800 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
Tickets: book here

Merci Annabelle Mauger and team.

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