Olafur Eliasson, Your Rainbow panorama, Aarhus, taken 2019.

On the Viewing Platform: The Panorama and its Afterlives

Katie Trumpener–

“Panoramas”, gigantic paintings in the round, were first created and exhibited in Britain in 1792. Rapidly taken up across Europe, then around the world, they remained a central nineteenth-century art form–and an equally crucial (if sometimes spectral) force in twentieth-century visual culture. Indeed, the recent book On the Viewing Platform: The Panorama between Canvas and Screen, which I co-edited with Tim Barringer, argues that they create the ground for installation art, alongside other ubiquitous forms of contemporary art.

Throughout the nineteenth century, panoramic paintings were most often exhibited in custom-designed, circular “cyclorama” buildings.  Skylights all around the cyclorama’s top were covered over on the inside by the painted canvas. Yet for viewers standing in the middle of the vast painting, the light seeping in under and over the image produced a diffuse, haloing effect, enhancing the panorama’s sense of uncannily-realistic, yet somehow other-worldly illusion.  Visitors entered the cyclorama, typically, by ascending a flight of stairs or walking up through a dark passageway out into the rotunda. There they found themselves on a viewing platform, like a gigantic ship’s crows-nest, looking out onto a vast and dazzling painted world that surrounded them completely, 360 degrees, on all sides.

The moat-like gap left between the platform and the canvas soon came to be filled with dioramic elements–dirt mounds, stuffed animals, fenceposts, for example–“faux-terrain” which softened the transition between viewing space and view, perfecting the illusion of depth, the simulation of entering a three-dimensional landscape. At times, moreover, panoramic paintings were painted so as to situate viewers on a naturally occurring vantagepoint (a tower, rooftop, or mountain meadow).

Visitors to the panorama repeatedly reported feeling physically overwhelmed (sometimes literally dizzy or seasick) at its scale and sublimity, and by the intensity of their own experience. Even those who clutched a printed guide (whose anamorphic diagram explained what and where everything “was”) still struggled to know what to look at first, and even more importantly how to look, prioritize information. Nineteenth-century pictures set inside panoramas show viewers, often in small groups strolling around the platform, looking and pointing at different parts of the vast painting. If not exactly flaneurie this was nonetheless a form of mobile spectatorship. The act of looking itself, as some of these pictures suggest with dotted-line vectors marking specific gazes, was subjectively focalized, as viewers, even those visiting together, simultaneously looked in different directions or at different things, from different angles and vantage points.

Robert Fulton (American, 1765–1815), Preparatory Drawing for a Brevet d’Importation: Tableau Circulaire, Nommé Panorama, 1799. Ink-and-wash drawing. Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle, Courbevoie, France (1BA88)

These platforms thus inaugurated new viewing conditions and ways of seeing. Salon visitors moving through often-crowded rooms had peered upwards at the rows of (flat, framed) pictures hung there. By pitching the viewing crowd into a loftier viewing space, seemingly reaching to the horizon, the panorama pushed viewers into a new, architectural experience of traversing and interacting with space, melding the act of moving with the art of seeing.

The panorama offered at once a relatively stable vantagepoint from which to absorb sublime spectacle; a launching pad for immersive transport into a parallel reality; and a social platform or theatrical stage in its own right. It grounded viewers in the collectivity of shared, simultaneous spectatorship, yet left each visitor radically unmoored in their idiosyncratic, peripatetic movement across the platform, their perspectival subjectivity. In these key respects,  the panorama foreshadowed the installation art of our own era.

In nineteenth-century cities across the globe, cycloramas were major urban attractions, anchoring monumental or visual pleasure districts. Napoleon envisioned a succession of rotundas along the Champs-Élysées, housing panorama paintings of his own military victories. Had these actually been erected, the panorama might have developed largely as an official state institution. (In 1890s Japan, in the 1970s Soviet Union and Bulgaria, as in present-day China and North Korea, the panorama indeed took on the role of official state apparatus.) For the most part, however, it has remained a form conceived, financed, erected and toured by commercial entities. Although their enormous size made them difficult to install, disassemble and transport, panoramic paintings were frequently moved, by railcar and steamship, across continents and oceans, between exhibition locales, within a worldwide panoramic exhibition circuit that reached across Europe to the United States, Canada, British India, and catalyzed sustained panorama crazes in Brazil, Australia and Japan.

Such crazes took many, morphing forms. In an 1850 essay, Charles Dickens describes a London retiree uncannily able to traverse the world without leaving home… by haunting the city’s panoramas. In Paris, Honoré de Balzac’s Pére Goriot (1835) described the fascination with panoramas and dioramas of all kinds inflecting even ordinary banter, “orama” becoming a suffix to be affixed at random, as a kind of superlative, to adjectives and nouns alike.  

World’s fairs and nascent amusement parks increasingly specialized in panorama-themed entertainment.  If Paris’s 1889 Exposition included seven painted panoramas, its 1900 Exposition’s two new painted panoramas (Madagascar; Mont Blanc) competed with a range of panoramic rides; simulated railroad or boat journeys (Stereorama, Transiberiana, Mareorama) around a painted panorama; the Tour du Monde, moving panorama views of China, Japan, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, and (for two days, until projectors overheated) the Cinéorama, a simulated balloon ride to projected panoramic footage.  

During the fin-de-siècle,  painted panoramas’ popularity finally waned. This often attributed to their replacement by the new medium of cinema. Yet cinema (like other forms of entertainment promising virtual, embodied or enhanced reality) built explicitly on the panorama. One of the earliest film genres, indeed, was the so-called “panorama”, a brief documentary “phantom ride” in which a camera mounted on a vehicle (whether elevator, rickshaw, hot-air balloon, gondola, tram, train or steamship) provided moving horizontal, vertical, or circular “panning” shots.  Soon after the Lumière Brothers “invented cinema” in 1895, they began shooting, commissioning and distributing these early panoramic shorts. In 1900, moreover, the brothers patented “a system of stereoscopic cinema” harkening back directly to the painted panorama: their Photorama (open from 1902-3 in a dedicated cyclorama) surrounded viewers on a circular platform with hugely magnified, 360° panoramic photographs, continuously projected as twenty-foot-tall still images, while viewers pivoted to survey the breadth of the vista. Far from trying to render the panorama obsolete, then, early cinema worked to imitate, magnify, and reimagine its characteristic effects.        

Louis Poyet (French, 1846–1913), engraving of the Lumière brothers’ Photorama, Paris, 1902. From G. Mareshal, “Le Photorama: Projections panoramiques de MM. Auguste et Louis Lumière,” La Nature: Revue des Sciences 30 (1902): 173.

In media like photography such efforts were already longstanding. Panoramic photography was pioneered a few years after the medium’s invention, and for the rest of the nineteenth century, a vast body of panoramic photographs (whether shot with a rotating panoramic camera or post-composited by gluing together overlapping still images) attempted to recreate panoramic or semi-panoramic views for domestic spectators. Visitors to nineteenth-century cycloramas were surrounded on all sides by a painting much bigger than they were, and which, no matter how they turned, continued to fill not only the view ahead of them but their peripheral vision. Its world, like the real world, was in color, and in complete focus. Nineteenth-century panoramic photography, in contrast, was generally in black or sepia and white. Even when published in large albums, photographs were consistently much smaller than what they depicted. Yet photographers and viewers still saw such images as a successful hybrid of panorama and (regular) photography, offering inclusive, comprehensive, detailed and situated views of places, the next best thing to being there.  

Leporello books, made, concertina-like, from folded paper, could often be unfolded to create a miniaturized surround. Some were explicitly aimed at children, who could crouch or sit in the midst of a fully unfolded book, whose stiff conjoined pages, stood on end, could form a loose panoramic surround. Unlike the nineteenth-century painted panorama, to be sure, the images remained too small to tower over even the smallest child. Yet they offered child readers ways to trace the contiguity or transition of landscapes–and get some sense of the panoramic effect itself.

Museum display techniques developed along related lines. Visitors to Stockholm’s wonderful 1893 Biology Museum thrilled to a central, two-story dioramic panorama, whose atmospheric backdrop (painted by Bruno Liljefors) and taxidermied animal and bird specimens both rendered palpable the idea of a biosphere or habitat (viewers on the top story of the viewing platform observed the scene at canopy and bird level, on the lower story the same scene at plant, mammal and insect level) and compressed all of Sweden’s distinctive microclimates and biotypes into a single, unbroken space.

Biological Museum, Stockholm. 

So too, in the late 1930s, when emigré Russian futurist-constructivist Alexandra Exter and French children’s author Marie Colmont collaborated on a trilogy of innovative panoramic Leporello picturebooks (Up the River, Along the Shore, Down the Mountain) they compressed France’s varied regions into a continuous landscape, from sandy Côte d’Azur beaches to Brittany’s rain-swept, rocky, cromlech-dotted coast.

Alexandra Exter (Russian, 1882–1949), Panorama of the Mountain/Panorama de la montagne, 1938; Panorama of the River/Panorama du Fleuve, 1936; Panorama of the Coast/ Panorama de la côte, 1937. From Albums du Père Castor. Texts by Marie Colmont (Paris: Flammarion, n.d.). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. 

Key to some panoramic forms of visual culture, then, was not necessarily (only) an enclosed, boundless view but a view which conjoined or linked many smaller, more local landscapes. Such panoramic works drew on Sino-Japanese scroll traditions (especially in images featuring long contiguous stretches of landscape), on the early modern etching tradition showing landscapes, cityscapes or riverscapes in an elongated rectangular format (instanced in our volume by a Wenceslas Hollar vignette), as on the Enlightenment tradition of topographical and cartographic renderings of specific Alpine mountain-ranges. In Exter and Colmont’s picturebooks, Exter’s contiguous plates can be unfolded to its full length, enabling child viewers to swing their heads and track their eyes in a continual passage from the South to the North of France (or alternately, turned over to read Colmont’s natural historical explanations of the landscape’s changing geological, meterological and botanical particularities).  

In the late nineteenth century, traveling panoramic photographers including Felice Beato, Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, and Bernhardt Holtermann tried to capture the still “unspoiled” landscape of the American West and the Australian outback, the look of their frontier boomtowns, the unprecedented vistas offered by newly built railroads, and the fabled (but to Euro-American viewers, seldom-seen) cities of Asia.

In 1877-8, Muybridge took very large panoramic photographs of San Francisco (itself later largely destroyed in the devestating 1906 Earthquake).  As Andrew Vielkind’s essay in our volume explores, the long afterlife of these celebrated cityscapes included their virtual restaging by experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr, who is interested simultaneously in the complexities of the view, the complexities of looking, and the complex relationship between the filmmaking process and the glass elevator. Gehr’s film at times “distorts”, inverts or atomizes the view. In this it bears comparison with Michael Snow’s 1971 experimental film La Région Centrale, in which a preprogrammed robotic arm, set in the wilderness of northern Quebec, rotates continuously in spirally, unbroken circles to create continual panoramas, while also at moments leaving the viewer looking upside down or at pebbles on the ground so close up they become unrecognizable. Gehr’s strategies of distortion lend the San Francisco panorama a texture and a cognitive and sensory complexity exceeding that of Muybridge’s original. Yet as Vielkind underscores, Muybridge’s photopanorama itself has a complex sense of time and vantagepoint baked into it.

Ernie Gehr, Side/Walk/Shuttle, 1991.

Both in his subject and in his elevator-as-filmmaking-vehicle, Gehr simultaneously recuperates important preoccupations in early cinema. For the first years of the twentieth century, the so-called “panorama” was a popular filmmaking genre. These very short films often consisted solely of a continuous vertical or horizontal panning shot or a 360° circular panorama shot of a cityscape, landscape or seascape. Such “panoramas” were taken from many available moving vantagepoints (from buses, trains, trams and subways, the elevator of the Eiffel Tower, hot air balloons, steamboats, gondolas, and rickshaws). Such films derived much of their power not only from the revelatory vantagepoints they offered, but from their differing ways of harnessing and reflecting motorized speed as an assist to broadly panoramic modes of seeing. In obvious ways, they thereby meditated on the power, spectatorial relations, and technological infrastructure of moving pictures themselves. 

Even long after the heyday of the panorama, its legacy continued to inform further forms of visual media (from the cinemascope and the IMAX to Virtual Reality).  As Richard Suchenski and Mal Ahern show, it also had a profound impact on film theory. Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project (1927-40) included a key convolute on “Panoramas”; Paris’ first arcade, indeed, was the Passage du Panorama, leading directly to a cyclorama building, and Benjamin clearly understood the two as linked visual phenomena. Dolf Sternberger’s 1938 Panorama of the Nineteenth Century uses the panorama as its title image–and opens with a chapter on a celebrated (though now-lost) German painted panorama commemorating the Franco-Prussian War. And film theorists from Béla Balázs to Jacques Aumont and theorist/practitioners like Michael Snow, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen alternately analyzed the grammar of the panning shot, and explored its new narrative and non-narrative possibilities.

Panoramic images and viewing remained of crucial interest to experimental filmmakers from early practitioners such as D.W. Griffiths and Abel Gance to Chantal Akerman, Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, “auteurs” like Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Theo Angeloupolos, and to Expanded Cinema practitioners like Stan Vanderbeek and Edgar Reitz. Projected onto a very long screen, its image generally bisected or trisected into parallel narrative and visual fields, Abel Ganz’s 1927 Napoleon, Suchenski argues, represents an influential early attempt simultaneously at “widescreen” cinema and cinematic montage. (Napoleon thus seems a key ancestor not only of 1950s cinemascope but of Andy Warhol’s 1966 Chelsea Girls, projected always on two simultaneously-run but inevitably imperfectly-syched projectors, ensuring an aleatory, performative uniqueness to each screening.)

Abel Gance, Napoléon, 1927.

The panoramic, Mal Ahern demonstrates, remains equally important to Mulvey and Wollen’s nascent attempts to circumvent the narrative drive and suturing editing techniques they associated with mainstream, masculinist Hollywood narratives; their 1977 Riddles of the Sphinx centers on a long series of slow, exploratory 360° panning shots, reanimating some Photorama techniques, yet also inculcating new ways of seeing.

Laura Mulvey, Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977.

After 1900, as the painted panorama lost mass popularity, most cyclorama buildings were demolished, while many panoramic paintings were destroyed or lost. Yet about fifteen nineteenth-century panoramas are still intact, and still visitable in various parts of the world. And since the 1990s, new panoramas have opened all over the world (in Los Angeles, Germany, Belgium, Australia, Turkey, China, France, India, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Surinam, and  Syria), even as contemporary forms of virtual reality have stimulated new popular interest in the form and new scholarly attention (and the formation of the International Panorama Council). A host of exhibits (from Bonn, Geneva, and Paris to São Paolo and New York) have tried to popularize and explore the legacy of panoramic forms–although often, of necessity, in the absence of full-scale panoramas themselves.

Panoramic form, moreover, continues to have a very wide, long and diffuse legacy. It is visible in a very wide range of contemporary art works–from murals to Antonio López García’s 1997-2006 painting “View of Madrid from the Vallecas Fire Tower” (explored in our volume by Cassius Clay) and Stan Douglas’ 1985 “Panorama Rotunda” (discussed by Noam Elcott), and from Jan Dibbet’s panoramic photo-collages to sculptural surrounds like Richard Serra’s 1998 “Torqued Ellipse” and Sanford Wormfeld’s 2000 “Cyclorama” to T.J. Wilcox’s 2013 photorama-style projected surround installation “In the Air”.

T. J. Wilcox (American, b. 1965), In the Air, 2013. Panoramic flm installation: Super 8 film transferred to video and HD video, black-and-white and color, silent, dimensions variable; duration: 30 minutes, 42 seconds. Copyright T. J. Wilcox. Courtesy of T. J. Wilcox and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Photo credit: Bill Jacobson

Panoramic influences remain equally visible not only in panning and viewing platform shots in many movies, but in train observation cars and modern car interiors, with their wraparound windows; in theme park rides, like Disneyland’s 1955 Peter Pan’s Flight, in which viewers “fly” above cities. From 1960s onwards, moreover, cities from Albania, Australia and Azerbijan to Egypt, Tanzania, Bolivia, and Indonesia, have seen the proliferation of rooftop revolving restaurants, enabling unfolding and eventually 360° city views over dinner. Most recently, a series of influential architectural installations– from Norman Foster’s Reichstag Dome (Berlin, 1990s) and Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” (New York City, 2012) to Olafur Eliason’s “Your Rainbow Panorama” (Aarhus, Denmark, opened 2011)–have made memorable use of panorama-style viewing platforms. 

Olifur Eliasson, Your Rainbow panorama, Aarhus, taken 2019.

Arched around the top of the Aarhus art museum, Eliason has set a circular walkway, glassed-in on both sides, whose hue shifts prismatically panel by panel, continually changing, for perambulating viewers, the tonality of Aarhus’s city and industrial harborscape as they walk around. Meanwhile their movement, from far away, remains fully visible from the streets below. The viewers themselves thus become a key part of the spectacle, as distance abstracts their figures and movements into a frieze (or a Muybridgean motion study). More distant spectators thus watch watchers watching.

Olafur Eliasson, Your Rainbow panorama, Aarhus, taken 2019.

Eliason’s panorama is thus not only a prime space to observe and meditate on viewing behavior but an active panorama generator or breeder–in the spirit of the nineteenth-century painted panorama, itself a breeder of the transformed visual culture we all still inhabit today.

Katie Trumpener is Emily Sanford Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University.

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