Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Panorama

Our collective appetite for visual spectacles has a history which long predates the projections of the earliest film, back to the early nineteenth century, when crowds lined up across Europe and America to see massive depictions of spectacular disasters, ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to the Great Earthquake of Lisbon to the burning of Sebastapol. If our own time can be characterized, as it was by Guy Debord, as that of the 'Society of the Spectacle,' then its timeline must be extended to include the Panorama, where the very sense of society self-seen in the mirror of media was born, and whose technology was as characteristic of its age as the cinema is of the twentieth century.

For the "panorama" was not found, but invented, and patented as well, by Robert Barker in 1794. The technical challenge was to create a painting on a curved surface that looked like the view from a great distance, and in every direction. Some geometrical calculations were involved to ensure that the landscape did not seem distorted, a problem Barker was said to have solved by looking at the lines made on the floor of his prison cell by the grid of bars. A small one was first exhibited in Edinburgh, to which Barker invited the eminent authority Sir Joshua Reynolds. There was a feeling, at that time, that things which merely mimicked reality did not count as art -- Barker wanted very much to have his paintings considered as art -- a desire to which Sir Joshua gave his seal of approval. A purpose-built structure -- which still stands (see this GoogleEarth view) -- was erected in London's Leicester-square, and the first Panorama, of 'London from the Roof of the Albion Mills,' was unveiled. This was soon followed by a view of the British fleet at Spithead, was unveiled. The effect was said to be so realistic that it made Queen Charlotte seasick.

The phenomenon spread all around the world; by the mid-nineteenth century there was hardly a major city in Europe or America without at least one Panorama rotunda; many had several. Here in the United States, there were dozens, beginning with Vanderlyn's Panorama of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles (the building is long gone, but the painting survives at New York's Metropolitan Museum), the recently-restored Gettysburg Cyclorama in Gettysburg, and the Cyclorama of the Burning of Atlanta in Atlanta (A "Cyclorama" is a Panorama with the addition of false scenery and other special effects). Boston had one too -- a so-called "Cyclorama" of the Civil War -- but its case is the opposite of Vanderlyn's; the painting is gone but the building still stands.

Stephan Oetterman insists, and perhaps rightly so, that one should not seek to understand the Panorama primarily as the predecessor of the cinema. He emphasizes instead its historical disjunction, and cites Adorno's cautionary admonition that "nothing is more detrimental to a theoretical understanding of modern art than attempts to reduce it to similarities with what went before." Yet the kind of history at stake in the Panorama seems not to be the "progressive" history of which Adorno was so suspect, but rather a kind of Borgesian history, in which the present casts its shadow upon the past, and artists 'invent their precursors.' And now, as the "Panorama" option on the iPhone enables everyone to create all-encompassing views, we can look back to the original London Panorama as a shadow of ourselves, one which we should be perfectly free to regard as an early Victorian version of 'virtual reality.'


  1. Without having a strong background in either art or art history, I must admit that some of the concepts discussed in Oettermann's introduction went right over my head. I definitely longed for more extensive visual representations of some of the concepts that he describes.

    One concept that I did find interesting was his linking of the Panorama and the Panopticon. Foucault's analysis and theorizing of this phenomenon in society asks us to reflect on the ways in which we alter our own behavior under the perceived observation of the institutions and people around us. This places us firmly - and seemingly permanently - in the "prisoner" position of the Panopticon. Oettermann suggests that the Panorama reverses this in a way - allowing the audience to assume the "guard" role by observing the exposed canvas (the "prisoner"). Yet, there are set rules to viewing a Panorama. The audience remains on a platform, viewing the image from a prescribed distance. This makes me wonder whether the audience is then occupying both roles - guard and prisoner - simultaneously. As a guard, audience members are viewing the painting, but as a prisoner they are acutely aware of the gaze of the curator and their peers. This causes the audience to behave politely and remain on the platform.

    I'm not sure that this will have any bearing on our larger conversation of Panoramas, but it was one detail that caught my interest.

    ~Jess Poore

    1. Jess, that's a great connection to make. It's a fascinating contrast: in the Panopticon the prisoners on the periphery have no power, and the watchers in the center have all the control; in the Panorama, the only people there are in the center. Are they monarchs of what they see, or are they prisoners of this panoramic view? Oleksijczuk asks the question in the excerpt of her book, "The King and Queen Visit the Panorama," which is linked above at the right.

      And you are quite right about the influence that the other viewers on the platform have: they watch not only the painting, but also each other. It's a system that tends to increase conformity -- for instance, as we'll see later in the semester, in Nazi Germany no one watched television alone at home; instead, they were herded into "Television Parlors" in major cities, where they watched together.

    2. I am extremely hesitant to ascribe a panoptic effect to the panorama. The panorama and panopticon certainly represent developments in the understanding of seeing. Though their similarities in physical manifestation are certainly conspicuous, the panorama is absolutely what Foucault describes as "Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle."

      The spectacle of the thing is undeniable. Beyond the amazing proportions of these unusual paintings, the panoramas were held in what Oleksijczuk calls a "fictional reality," when describing the panoramas' separation from the outside world, and I would hazard to call a ritualized space. As ritualized as any other communal location.

      The difference, I think, is the position of the self, the seer. The self of the panopticon is in a diminished position. This self is contingent on the existence of a power that the panoptic self has absolutely no peer. Contrast this with the egalitarian panorama. Not even in a theater or church could a person hope for the same view as a king or queen, but the panoramic perspective is so designed that even being first doesn't grant the privilege of the intended perspective. In the panoramic rotunda the viewership stands equal, perhaps exuding some sort of normalizing herd mentality, but not the oppression of the panoptic society.

  2. I appreciate the concepts around how the panorama came into being. The fact that we have such technology and access at our finger tips to view and appreciate things from whatever perspective we choose is certainly something that I have taken for granted. Before reading the intro, and understanding a bit more of the history, my narrow view of the panorama was just a different type of photography or image that was more widescreen/ a different aspect ratio.

    As I was reading, I couldn't help but think of the Panopticon, perhaps because I just recently learned more about it in 501. I agree with Jess in that it is an interesting connection. Both deal with concepts of seeing, and the privilege of viewing. I think the big difference for me is that one restricts while the other grants privilege. One is designed for art, while the other is for control.

    I am interested to learn more about how art changed as a result of the Panorama, because I think one could draw a further connection between how art changed and become more accessible (both aesthetically and physically) by granting a universal view meanwhile behavior becomes more controlled when it is perceived that one is being watched.

    I don't know if I have much of a point here, or if I am just listing observations but I am hoping it will spark some conversation.

  3. I'm intrigued by the point that's been made about panoramas being accessible to everyone. I think it's true that they, in some sense, put all viewers on an even playing field. But I think that's also the immense power of instruments of mass viewing (panoramas, Television Parlors, tonight's Superbowl broadcast) -- they reach everyone. But I don't think this is a completely benign democratization of art. (For example, the panorama in Leicester Square depicting navy ships is clearly political; it sends a message that the society it exists in wants to project. Because it is seen by all members of society -- including the king and queen! -- it has to reflect an image that can be endorsed by the society's authorities.) Mass visual media control the act of seeing, and this is often manipulated to control the see-er.

    I'm interested in how the panorama establishes this control. What really struck me in Oleksijczuk's excerpt was the idea of who was filtering this visual control and the idea that this control was nearly always gendered. Panoramas are totalizing. They surround the viewer and create a closed world. When a viewer enters that space, they "buy into" the world it creates and thus the society that produced it. To me, it feels like Oleksijczuk is saying that by entering the panorama, it becomes necessary to filter one's world through the panorama and then again filter one's perception of the world the panorama creates.

  4. I find Oettermann and Oleksijczuk's discussion of the historical duality of experiencing a panorama to be intriguing. On the one hand, panoramas allowed its viewers a sort of democratic liberation, the ability to gain a new perspective in a world constrained by the symbolic dominance of the prison or dungeon. As Oettermann points out, the hot air balloon craze of the 19th century coincided with the rising popularity and desire for the panoramic experience among the people. This certainly speaks to the prevalence in society of a desire to seek out feelings of hope, freedom or liberation offered through panoramic experience. On the other hand, the perceived liberation of perspective a viewer of panorama experiences is ultimately unreal, fictionalized; as it is the direct result of a prescribed, controlled, encased horizon in most cases subsidized by those in power. Oleksijczuk's discussion of the panorama’s function as propaganda in Britain to reinforce the imperial status quo, including gender roles, illustrates the powerful tool of mass media the idea of the panorama represents both then and now.

    The duality of experiencing a panorama - the liberation or imprisonment; the static or mobile viewer; the masculine or feminine - the range of emotional and psychological reaction, is fascinating to me. While I understand completely the existence of this panoramic duality of experience, I am interested in exploring attempts at or examples of truly subversive panorama. The ease with which the panorama can be used as a tool for status quo conformity and propaganda is discussed by Oleksijczuk. I am excited, through our readings and class discussions, to develop a deeper understanding of the opposing side of this duality - the subversive nature of the panoramic experience.

  5. It appears as though my comment was too long, so I am going to try to break it up into two posts.


    What strikes me most about the early panorama programmes is the thorough amount of history and detail they contain with regard to the particularities of the landscapes. I believe this feature of the programmes reflects the inherent realism of the early panorama noted by Oetterman & Oleksijczuk, and, furthermore, Oetterman's explanation that the realism of the panorama is a departure from ideal landscapes (although his overall point is admittedly that the ideal landscape is an ancestor to the panorama).

    Maybe it's just me, but there seems something colonialist about the thorough detail of the panorama programmes, a sense of the land as being "seized" by such detail. In the same way that the colonists assumed the lands of the New World they discovered as their own, a segment of land perhaps "belongs" to the early panorama that depicts it, in some way. Of course, there isn't a direct link between the respective notions of extensive detail and seizure, but, when I look at the programmes, I think of a colonialist impulse being recycled into an art form now that the New World has been quite fully traversed by Europeans at the time of the early panoramas.

    Perhaps this sense of seizure can be linked to the obsoletion of the "genre of the 'ideal landscape'" (25), which Oetterman cites as a precursor to the panorama. Oetterman quotes the Lexikon der Kunst's characterization of the genre as defined by "a clear, harmonious landscape filled with sun and light." Oetterman suggests, "rather than...reproducing a particular...landscape, they [ideal landscapes] depict a special aesthetic relationship to it...individual details fade into insignificance...Nature as such, in its concrete manifestations, was of no interest" (26). As does the German lexicon, Oetterman goes on to associate ideal landscape paintings with "allegorical and mythological" concerns as well as stating later that painters of ideal landscapes operated "according to aesthetic principles that stemmed from Ancient Arcadia" and imitated other ideal landscape paintings (28).

    1. As Oettermann refers to the ideal landscape's lack of concern for the "concrete," I think the terms "universal" & "particular" could be invoked to further draw a useful contrast between the panorama and visual artwork preceding it. Oetterman's remarks suggest that ideal landscapes involved conformity of the depiction of land to standards present in other ideal landscapes, and it might be suggested therefore that, in the conformity of each landscape to standards/archetypes, each individual landscape is implied to contain qualities of universal excellence or an absolute form of beauty that manifests itself in the painting. On the other hand, in the context of the panorama, the image of the land seems to be aesthetically meritable purely for the particularity of the landscape, which the thorough detail of the early panorama programmes supports. Preoccupation with the specificity of particular lands to their historical and natural conditions is perhaps an instance of an artistic break (or of a step towards this break) from concepts of universal beauty that possibly mark the aesthetic with which the ideal landscape is associated by Oetterman–a universal beauty that deems a segment of land aesthetically meritable or on which the merit of a visual depiction depends. In the case of the panorama, it might be said that the beauty of a particular piece of land at a particular point in time is captured by the percipient of the landscape–a beauty not granted absolutely to the landscape but garnered in the attention of an individual who has the power to autonomously understand and yield the land's significance.

      This idea of "capturing" the beauty of the land, besides obviously suggesting the terminology of photography, brings me back to the sentiment of colonialist seizure that I find indirectly projected by the early panorama programmes. The realism of a panorama, as a medium for depicting a segment of land down to its fine details, perhaps implies the total subsumption/seizure of the aesthetic merit of that land under/by human faculties of perception and reason, as opposed to implying aesthetic origin in a universal form of beauty. As the panorama marks departure from the ideal landscape's ancient roots, this subsumption of the details of a particular landscape under the faculties of perception and reason is perhaps an artistic analogy to the political seizures of land that help to define the modern West and its departure from ancient/medieval.

      I'll just note briefly that a potential artistic recycling of colonialist impulse into the viewers of the panorama could possibly be connected to the notion of democratic liberation as entailed in early viewership of panoramas that has been entertained throughout the earlier comments on this post, for such recycling suggests a sort of empowerment on the part of the panorama's viewers.

    2. Giancarlo, a thoughtful post. There is a sort of almost hyper-realism here, with the sort of attention to detail in the programmes that suggests nothing is visible by accident. And I also agree with your first post -- there is a definite element of colonialism, and we'll see that become even more pronounced in the "moving panoramas" of next week. Britons, who themselves lacked the means for "actual" travel, traveled by pictorial means, surveyed their possessions, and returned feeling quite the lords of all they surveyed!

  6. Tatevik MartirosyanFebruary 4, 2015 at 6:01 PM

    As I began my reading of Oetterman's "The Origins of Panorama" I have to be honest that I did not have a sufficient understanding of what the word "panorama" meant. By the end of the reading I found myself wanting to learn more about this form of art. One aspect of the reading that interested me the most is the statement that the panorama serves two purposes. It is an "instrument for liberating human vision" and "limiting/imprisoning human vision." I began to question how the panorama manages to both liberate and limit human vision, two opposite things. In addition, Oetterman asserts that a person seeks to broaden his or her horizons, and that can be done through travel. The Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and climbing mountains were all used as examples of broadening your horizons. I believe that mountain climbing for example, is a form of liberating the human vision. Nevertheless, I want to learn more about how that experience contributes to our understanding of who we are as human beings, and how those experiences change us. In the weeks to come I am more interested in learning about how the panorama contributes to human liberation. The panorama is also described as being a "surrogate for nature" and a simulator. I think that is a very powerful connection to make, because man's experience with nature cannot really be described, it is something that you must feel, and for the panorama to take the place of nature is a very interesting concept. To look at a painting is one thing, to experience seeing that painting in real life, or to experience that mountain climbing is something different. I agree with Jess that I was also interested with the connection between the panorama and panopticon. Through my understanding, the panopticon was a way to get people to do their job by having them believe that they are under constant watch, therefore, is the panopticon a form of liberation or imprisonment?

    I believe that reading for the past two weeks have certainly given me a deeper understanding of panorama's and I am looking forward to learning more about the art form and being exposed to more visual aids as well.