Picture of the Week #76: The Mesdag Panorama, Den Haag

Last year, I wrote a post about the Salzburg panorama, an amazing, vast 19th-century 360-degree painting housed in glorious surroundings at the centre of the city. This week, I’ve seen another astonishing panorama, in the heart of Den Haag. Painted by Hendrik Willem Mesdag(1831 – 1915) and Sientje Mesdag‐van Houten (1834 – 1909), it has occupied the same enormous rotunda into which it was painted since 1881. It stands 14m high, and 120m in circumference. That’s a surface area of 1680 square metres. The world’s largest panorama was recently unveiled in Zhengzhou, China, measuring over 3500 square metres. It was designed digitally, and puts its viewers on a rotating platform in front of its enormous image. But the Mesdag painting was all done by hand; the main features were sketched onto a glass drum which was then illuminated from the centre of the room to project the outlines of buildings onto the canvas and accurately record the view of Scheveningen. As you can see in the photograph below, the Mesdag Panorama building is part of the illusion of continuous space created by the picture:

Visitors enter through a staircase below the central platform. A canopy restricts their view of the roof, and the floor surrounding the platform is covered in sand, driftwood, and other debris that is designed to conceal the gap between the two-dimensional image and the space in which the viewer is standing. The trick depends on hiding the frame: this is a painting with no visible edges, and you can’t approach the canvas to inspect the brush-strokes (there’s also the modern addition of piped-in sound effects), so you are asked to view it as if you were really standing on the shore at Scheveningen, the Hague’s most popular beach resort.

It’s a superb experience, an exciting reconstruction of an earlier form of screen entertainment. I never like to force those comparisons with 3D and Imax etc. (though I have done so, and they’re there if you want to make them), because panorama existed on its own terms with its own conventions of visual spectacle, but it’s also worth considering the longer, broader histories of screen media if you want to be a well-informed, critical consumer of, or preferably participant in, today’s visual culture.