The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium

Stephan Oettermann
The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium (Trans. By Deborah Lucas Schneider)
New York: Zone Books, 1997
ISBN 0-942299-83-3,
407 pp,
$37.50 US (cloth).
Uploaded 16 April 1999

A major controversy has ignited in the United States among Civil War historians and preservationists over the Cyclorama Center at Gettysburg, discussed by Thomas Hine in the New York Times. Designed by architect Richard Neutra in 1959 and located right in the middle of the most famous battlefield of that war, the structure houses Paul Phillippoteaux’s 1884 panorama painting, “The high tide of the Confederacy.” The painting shows a 360° view of the 1863 battle at the moment of General Pickett’s charge, when Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces made a last attempt to storm Cemetery Ridge, the stronghold of Union troops. While traditionalists decry Neutra’s modernist architecture as alien to its pastoral environment, others argue that the building and its painting are documents of the construction of Gettysburg’s history. Thousands and thousands of tourists not only visit the cyclorama every year, but are also able to compare directly the battle scene to the typography as it exists today. Ironically, these two observations support two points made by Stephan Oettermann, although he is talking about the panorama in its heyday, namely that the panorama attracted a mass, middle-class audience, and that it was a realistic medium.

As Oettermann’s extremely handsome, over-sized book implies in its subtitle, The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, the author views panorama painting not only as a “pre-cinema” mass media, but also as a direct precedent to the cinema’s aesthetics and part and parcel of the same history of vision. First published in 1980 in German, Oettermann’s exhaustive study of the panorama is indeed a welcomed English language addition to the history of visual mass media, offering numerous illustrations. If it has a weakness, it is that Oettermann too quickly leaves behind any theoretical questions, in order to overwhelm the reader with historical data.

In his introduction, “The origins of the panorama”, Oettermann discusses changes in the history of vision that influenced the genesis of the panorama, noting that the panorama was “a kind of pattern for organizing visual experience.”(7) First developed in the late 18th century, panorama paintings captured 360° views of landscapes and historical scenes and represented a new pictorial expression, in keeping with the bourgeois view of nature and the world. He makes this point by arguing that individuals of this era were for the first time gripped with a fever to experience the horizon, to climb church steeples and mountains, to travel on the ocean, to rise up in a balloon, all activities geared towards seeing without obstruction in every direction. Rather than looking up (at the gods), the newly powerful middle class now themselves became god-like. As Oetermann notes: “The experience of the horizon aroused a sense of hope… One can say the idea of paradise acquired a new spatial component: The Promised Land now lay not across the threshold of death, but beyond the horizon.”(18) Or later: “… the panorama celebrates the bourgeoisie’s ability to `see things from a new angle’…”(21)

Oettermann goes on to discuss various forerunners to the panorama, noting though that these were totally different in character. For example, he analyzes the tradition of ceiling frescos and stage sets from the late Baroque period, stating that both forms of expression used central perspective to create realistic scenes. The problem was that central perspective allowed for only one ideal viewing position, where the vanishing point was visible without distortion, and that was where the sovereign sat in his royal box (Baroque theatre). Panorama paintings, on the other hand, were democratic in the sense that they eschewed a single, controlling point of view. Indeed, many persons could view a panorama painting without distortion at the same time, because panoramas were constructed in relation to a theoretical horizon, so that an infinite number of point of views were matched by an equal number of viewing points. In contradistiction to traditional paintings, which could remain private, panoramas demanded pubic audiences.

Panorama paintings also differed from contemporary landscape paintings, Merian engravings, and veduta created with a camera obscura, because the collective goal of these genres was to visualize an “ideal” landscape. Even while utilizing central perspective to create an image that looked real, they sought to place idealized objects within the frame, representing a “synthesis of nature,” or in the case of veduta “a summation” of all that which fell within the camera obscura’s field of vision. Panoramas, on the other hand, depicted only what could be actually seen at a given moment from a specific site, and were judged by audiences accordingly. While landscape painting demanded connoisseurs who could decode the work’s mythological and allegorical content, panoramas could be read by “hard-headed businessmen and even property developers.”(32)

Clearly, Oettermann is grounding his history in Marxist theory, specifically in the contention that the history of aesthetics is the result of class relations. In fact, Oettermann goes on to quote Foucault’s analysis of the rise of prison systems, as an attempt to control the masses through visual observation, and in fact directly ties the invention of the panorama’s rotunda to similar architectural models for modern prisons. If the panorama is the 19th century art par excellence of the bourgeoisie, as Oettermann contends, then it follows that the cinema is the 20th century art of the proletariat. The latter theory has of course been discredited by film historians, leading me to wonder, if we should automatically trust Oettermann’s theories about the former.

Oettermann’s first chapter, “Technical features of the panorama and its offshoots,” continues this line of argument. In contrast to traditional painting that could rely on aristocratic patronage and a private audience, the panorama was a mass medium, involving a major financial investment for its production and a large paying audience. The panorama demanded a new form of building, designed specifically to exhibit the work: round, with a dark center for the audience, and sky lights around the circumference to illuminate the painting. A whole team of painters would spend usually a year researching the scene to be painted, drawing preliminary sketches, designing the 360° view and painting the panorama. A particular difficulty for the painters working close to the canvas was to create lines that looked straight from a distance(when they were actually crooked), and to create the right shades of color, given that audiences would be viewing the work from a darkened center.

The panorama then stayed on view for a season, before traveling to another city. In this manner hundreds of thousands of persons viewed panoramas. Given their popularity, entrepreneurs soon figured out ways to publicize them and make reproductions that could be sold to visitors as souvenirs. Their popularity extended throughout the 19th century, disappearing, like the rotundas that housed them, with the advent of cinema. The panorama also spawned offshoots, like the extended panorama that replicated the experience of travel in a moving vehicle through the countryside, or the double-sided, extended panorama which allowed the faux traveler to look out in two opposite directions. Such panoramas were rolled on mechanically driven cylinders with presentations lasting hours. I’m reminded of the “Hale’s Tours” which used film images to the same effect at the end of the century and were obviously antecedents of the moving panoramas. Oettermann goes on to describe other variations, such as Myrioramas, dioramas, cosmoramas, three-dimensional panoramas (Georama) and finally photographic and cinematographic panoramas (culminating in Cinerama), all of which afforded audiences to experience the real world through media.

Why this 19th century craving for the real? Are we to believe Bazin whose teleology postulates that all visual media hungered for the ambiguity of reality? I personally think it has more to do with the plight of modern (wo)man, simultaneously freed from the omnipotence of a god watching over him/her and fragmented by an ever more complex urban landscape. The realism of the panorama makes the world whole again, allowing the visitor to feel that he is in the center of things, in control of his fate by being able to control his gaze. Unfortunately, Oettermann rarely engages in such speculation, choosing instead to maintain a more positivist attitude.

In the following five chapters, Oettermann discusses in great detail panorama paintings in England, France, Germany, Austria, and the United States. Robert Barker, the English inventor of the panorama in 1792, of course, warrants extended treatment. His rotunda in Leicester Square defined the medium and its economic base in an audience of “ordinary citizens prepared to pay the price of admission.”(108) The focus in the following chapters (nearly 250 pages) is both on the artists cum businessmen that painted panoramas and built the rotundas housing them, and on the subject matter of individual works. With German thoroughness and a firm belief in hermeneutics, Oettermann has gathered together eyewitness accounts, autobiographical statements, illustrations, design documents, and publicity materials to compile his history of the panorama. An appendix of all surviving panoramas, Oettermann’s endless endnotes, and a bibliography close out the volume and give the work its academic weight.

Ironically, while the chapter headings would imply national differences in panoramas, Oetterman uses them merely to structure his overwhelming wealth of data. Nor does he attempt to summarize his thoughts in any form of conclusion. Thus, while the introduction and first chapter provide an initially interesting context and a functional theoretical framework, the later chapters exhaust the reader in details. Nevertheless, Oettermann’s book is an important work, both as a study in pre-cinema and as a compendium and reference work to one of the 19th century’s most fascinating mass media.

Jan-Christopher Horak

Thomas Hine, “Which of all the pasts to preserve?”, New York Times (21 February 1999), p. 48.

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →