Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Peripheral Vision

THE PANORAMA: History of a Mass Medium. By Stephan Oettermann . Translated from the German by Deborah Lucas Schneider . Zone: 408 pp., $37.50

December 28, 1997|MAX KOZLOFF | Max Kozloff is the author of "Lone Visions/Crowded Frames," a collection of essays on photography

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.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|