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.

Picture of the Week #46: Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you’re passing by Tate Britain between 8th September and 16th January, you’ll have the chance to catch an exhibition of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), pioneering chronophotographer and proto-animator, creator of the zoopraxiscope. The exhibition promises to cover the full range of his art, though he remains most famous for his sequential studies of human and animal locomotion, produced using an array of cameras timed to record the incremental the stages of a catalogue of movements and activities. It promises to be a wonderful opportunity to examine his work in more depth, and especially to see a 17-foot panoramic photograph of San Francisco, rather more impressive than the version shown below (click for a large, but not that large, view):

Picture of the Week #24: The Salzburg Panorama

[Click on the image for a much, much larger view…]

Salzburg is a city of many amazing things. Beautiful churches and crypts, salt, beer halls, a modern art museum perched on the top of a sheer cliff, Mozart, and the Marionette Theatre, to name but seven. But perhaps my favourite individual thing is Johann Michael Sattler’s panorama of 1829 (he began work on it in 1826), lovingly restored and housed next to the main Museum of Salzburg. A panorama is an enormous wide painting that surrounds the viewer in a complete circle – looking at it from a central platform, it provides an extraordinary view of a past version of the city. Above is an electronic copy of the painting for your inspection – click on it to see an expanded view. However big your screen can make it, there’s no substitute for walking around inside it.

Here’s where it was exhibited in a purpose-built facility in the Kirgarten (next to Mirabell Palace) from 1875 – 1937:

And here’s the flash surroundings in its current home:

Inside the enveloping circle of the painting itself, the impact is incredible. From the central gantry, there are telescopes to allow you to inspect bits of the painting in minute detail. As you pick out individual people, sheep in the fields or sheets drying on a washing line, you become involved in the picture, instead of just standing back and admiring it from a critical distance.

It’s not a big stretch to see works like this anticipating the wraparound, immersive IMAX aesthetic of today’s spectacular cinema, except that this allows you to choose your view, to explore instead of passively receive. As Angela Miller has suggested, the panorama redefined what art could achieve in the 19th century:

The advancing frontier of illusionistic representation in the nineteenth century provoked concern over the very definition of art and the panorama‟s contested claims to artistic status, doing so in a manner that anticipates a century of debate over the artistic value of photography, then film, video, and electronic media. As popular entertainment, the panorama offered a liberating access to an apparently encyclopaedic reality; unlike older forms of art, it did not require any particular or specialised knowledge or aesthetic expertise. To the early nineteenth-century academic establishment in both England and France, this proved disconcerting. If the power of high art was to select, idealise, and refine experience, the power of the panorama was to simulate it. (Angela Miller, ‘The Panorama, the Cinema, and the Emergence of the Spectacular.’ Wide Angle 18:2 (April 1996), 34-69.)

But, as well as urging us to rethink the power of representation, the panorama can also make us think again about our experience of the city itself. Below is a picture of the museum’s “Time Telescope”, a screen you can move over any portion of the painting (in a reduced reproduction) to compare the 1829 vision of the city with photographs of how it looks today and in the recent past. It’s an ingenious idea, and it will send you back onto the streets of Salzburg with a fresh perspective that collapses decades of change and flux into a bifocal vision of a place that has managed better than most to stay in touch with its history.