THE PANORAMA: History of a Mass Medium. <i> By Stephan Oettermann</i> . <i> Translated from the German by Deborah Lucas Schneider</i> . <i> Zone: 408 pp., $37.50</i>
As spectacles, they had something in common with Verdi’s operas, without the music, and they were occasionally featured in Barnum’s circus. Though they started as paintings, they were often installed with 3-D figures, meant to blend with their pictorial imagery. Sound and light effects contributed to their illusionary environment. In Europe, they surrounded the spectators, or rather, the audience, within an illuminated gyre, housed in darkened rotundas. In America, these paintings were slowly unscrolled while a speaker elucidated their topographical interest. One of them was touted as three miles long, a length in accord with its subject: the Mississippi River.
Such were the panoramas, cultural attractions and popular entertainment, viewed by Stephan Oettermann as a mass medium. Though it emerged from a varied background, the panorama was a new, patented art form that specialized in lateral extension. Oettermann gives us an account of the panorama’s career, which began in England in 1787, peaked by the late 1830s, then waned but was revived in the 1880s and ‘90s. Yet his historical narrative of this great pictorial tide is obliged to be an archeological survey. Out of the hundreds of mammoth panoramas that were generated in the 19th century, almost all have been destroyed, except a handful that have survived in a tattered state or deep storage. Their last trace is in the painted backgrounds in the dioramas of natural history museums. And except for wide-screen movies, the panorama tradition is as deceased as a dodo.
Dwindling interest in these prodigious works caused a failure of capital investment. Booked on nationwide tours, many were damaged or badly worn in travel. Fires depleted the remaining stock. Photographs supplanted them by conveying more and better information than the kind they provided. However, what decisively killed off panoramas in our century was what sealed them intellectually into the last.
Oettermann describes their mechanics very well. But he doesn’t see how their service to an ideal of continuous perception was replaced by our disjointed modern consciousness. Panoramas epitomized a way of thinking about and looking at the world as consecutive phenomena, an experience delivered at whatever direction one looked from a rotunda’s center. The peripheries of sight are extended by an imminence of events and features. As experienced, the panorama’s structure must have offered uninterrupted horizontal transitions. They rounded back upon themselves so as to imply a completeness of survey. More than that, while viewers were engulfed by this depicted world, they were also flattered by their command of a grand prospect. When the subject was Waterloo, this heliocentric scheme provided an overall scan that Napoleon would have died for. How much more fortuitous, confusing and out of it--how much like our own sense of reality--was the placement of Stendhal’s Fabrizio, a lesser soldier at that same scene.
Oettermann suggests that the visual scope of the panoramas was politically liberal, yet also socially controlling. In England, private enclosures of public land forced small landholders into the cities: "[O]ne might see a parallel between the displaced farmer and the panorama visitor. . . . The construction of the panorama--which presented the landscape surrounding the observer as untouched because it was untouchable--represented the act of enclosure and idealized it at the same time.” In short, a new pictorial openness portrayed regions of enjoyment, pride and development other than those that had recently been placed off limits.
These terrains included the skylines of the capital cities, the climaxes of victorious battles and vistas of exotic countries. A central, limited viewpoint gave way to diffused “democratic” perspectives. Here was an allusive form of travel (which replaced that previously undertaken by gentlemen on grand tour), infused with memories or dreams of conquest. It wasn’t just that the rising petite bourgeoisie of the cities could be fashioned into a public of spectators able to enjoy for a modest ticket price, equivalent to our movies, an alternate painting to the kind hitherto secluded in royal and private collections. More important, as the book argues, panoramas catered to the energetic perception of a middle class taking over from the old dynastic order.
An acquisitive eye is the natural product of a materialist culture. These two go together with as much ease as expansionist themes in the panoramas coinciding with nationalist propaganda. An English work depicted the mauling of the French fleet at Toulon by the Royal Navy. And a French panorama showed the reverse, at that same port, on another occasion. After the Franco-Prussian War, on-the-spot research by German artists for a panorama of Sedan, France, the site of the decisive defeat and surrender of Napoleon III in 1870, had to be done secretly, lest the artists be jailed as spies. Oettermann tells how panoramas evolved into a premature form of social realism, writ in the epic scale, that glorified the nation state for a strictly commercial end.
I wish he had been as concerned with the artistic implications as he is with the social history of this mass medium. He underestimates the input of the Italian veduta (city view) tradition to the panoramas, and he could have told us more about their alliance with official Salon painting’s military branch. After all, the panorama was ignored by progressive thinkers, not because of its politics but because it was illustrational.
Oettermann wants to show that the extremely literal documentation of particulars, worked up from sketches, was fused into a kind of idealism of perception. But when 19th century art foundered, as it did in this genre, it was most often because it neglected to synthesize observation with idea. Those journalists (never critics) who wrote about the panoramas hailed them for their prodigious accuracy; they droned on about the illusion of “being there.” Still, the great pan shot could not reproduce the heat of the moment any more than the romantic sense of historical event could be accommodated by a pileup of explicit detail. Immense pains were taken to integrate that detail into a trompe l’oeil framework. Were it still-life the panoramas represented (unimaginably), they might have fooled the eye, but it was action of story, taken in by the movement of the spectator’s eyes across the horizon. So, these static tableaux protested a unity that couldn’t be there.
They lost out, too, to photography, with whose realism they couldn’t compete. With its credentials registered in actual light, photography right away proved itself to be the visual mass medium of the age. Apparently, the triumphalism of the panoramas was based on a kind of bogus excitement. Certainly, the modest facticity of photographs enhanced their use as genuine memories. In this era of positivism, the memorial function was imbued with a melancholy tone; battle photographs managed to show the heroic dead as only the litter of war. This was materialism with a vengeance. Even Eadweard Muybridge’s panoramic photos of San Francisco and Felice Beato’s of Lucknow, India, have a mournful air. The fact that they are obviously sequences of partial views, visual scraps, as are all photographs, reinforces the doleful effect.
Oettermann does little justice to these contrasting currents. Except for its first interesting chapter, his book is descriptive rather than analytic. Written in the 1970s and only now translated into English, it mostly reads as an archive of business methods, misadventures and architectural plans whose inventory he has mined. Now, since a few of the panoramas he described from sources have been restored, I am curious to visit them, if only to experience what I imagine to be the fascination of a dead thrill.