Coming Full Circle

The Gettysburg Cyclorama was cutting edge, immersive entertainment when it was new in 1884. In the age of the interactive and fully wired museum, the old panoramic painting has been refurbished to its original splendor. On Friday, it will reopen to public after a 5 year and $15 million renovation. Video by Pierre Kattar/washingtonpost.com
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008

GETTYSBURG, Pa. For generations, kids have begged to see it, and for generations they have walked away wondering, is that all?

The Gettysburg Cyclorama, a huge dinosaur of a painting left over from the heyday of circuses, magic shows and brass bands playing on the town square, has never been a great painting. Its cartoonish soldiers and clutter of horses never really delivered on the promise of an illusion so real you'd swear you were in the middle of the great Civil War battle.

But the giant painting in the round sat at Gettysburg since 1913, while the March of Progress coughed up movies with sound, television, the Internet and computer games. The painting never got better, but it did get stranger -- a relic of what seemed a more credulous era -- and over time it became part of history itself.

And now, in one of the stranger twists of the history of how we tell history, the giant 1884 canvas has been given the loving treatment of an old master painting. On Friday, after a five-year and $15 million restoration effort, the panoramic Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama will reopen to the public. Decades of neglect, cropping and overpainting have been fixed. The painting has been restored to its original 377-foot-by-42-foot size and installed in a new rotunda.

The panorama is a fully rehabilitated entry in the catalogue of antiquated illusions, an entertainment like Grandma's stereoscope, or the magic lantern shows that used to tour town to town back when telephones had cranks, not buttons. You can almost hear the barker shouting ridiculous superlatives -- "The MOST MARVELOUS PRODUCTION of THIS AGE," as an advertisement for the cyclorama more than a century ago put it (with a profusion of capital letters).

The Gettysburg Foundation, which built and operates the battlefield's new visitors center, says it is the first time Paul Philippoteaux's painting has been seen in its original format in living memory, and it is the only cyclorama in this country that can be experienced as originally intended: from an elevated viewing platform, with a diorama that creates a three-dimensional foreground and a cloth canopy overhead to hide the upper boundary of the painting. They've also added a sound-and-light show that narrates the key moments of the battle.

It may take today's visitor some convincing to believe the claim that "grown men wept" upon first seeing the cyclorama. And yet, contemporary accounts (collected in a newly published guide to the painting by Sue Boardman and Kathryn Porch) suggest that the illusion was compelling.

"The panorama of 'The Battle of Gettysburg' is universally conceded by all who have seen it to be the most extraordinary work of art ever seen in this city," reported the Chicago Times when the first version of the painting (four official versions were made) was debuted. "I never before had an idea that the eye could be so deceived by paint and canvas," wrote a Union Army officer after visiting in 1884.

The format was patented by Robert Barker in 1787. Barker, an Irishman living in Edinburgh, was building on experiments in perspective and illusionist painting that had been deployed in late-17th-century baroque churches (making the roof disappear into what seemed like an infinite view into the angel-congested heavens).

But the military, which saw a potential new avenue for studying and surveying landscape, was also interested in panorama, which seems to have influenced the form in two ways: a curious obsession with almost photorealist detail and a pervasive interest in depicting battle scenes.

After Barker's first forays in the form, panorama painting exploded in popularity and became, by the second half of the 19th century, a potentially lucrative business. Joint stock companies were formed to distribute new works, which appeared in purpose-built round halls in major cities. The painting size was standardized, and scenes were chosen (religious tableaux and city views were also popular) to ensure the widest possible audience.

The Gettysburg Cyclorama was an entrepreneurial venture organized by Charles Louis Willoughby, a Chicago retail magnate, who hired the French painter Philippoteaux to re-create the battle. Philippoteaux visited Gettysburg and had a set of 10 black-and-white photographs taken at the site of the "High Water Mark" of the Confederacy, where a desperate Southern charge against Union lines failed.

Philippoteaux employed a team of 20 artists with different specialties (landscape, horses, soldiers) to complete the canvas. The Gettysburg panorama was originally painted for Boston but brought to the small Pennsylvania town for the 50th anniversary of the epic clash. And there it moldered for decades.

In the early 19th century, serious artists admired the possibilities of panorama painting. In his survey of illusionist media, "Virtual Art," the scholar Oliver Grau cites painters as diverse as the brilliant French propagandist Jacques-Louis David and the English landscape artist John Constable as favorably impressed by early examples. The form seemed to offer a democratic experience, allowing the viewer to move around in the picture, unhindered by borders or frames.

But autocrats almost immediately saw its propaganda value. Napoleon hoped to build an array of eight rotundas at Versailles to celebrate his battle exploits. Even more famous than the Battle of Gettysburg was the "Battle of Sedan," a wildly popular bit of Prussian agitprop that helped channel the jingoistic fervor inspired by the Franco-Prussian War into feelings of broader German nationalism.

Philippoteaux's Battle of Gettysburg -- with its exploding caissons, agonized horses and chaotic disarray of charging soldiers -- is an occasionally dramatic but hardly great painting. In 1883, impressionism was in full flower, and Philippoteaux's compatriots -- Monet, C├ęzanne, Degas -- were revolutionizing painting. Panorama painters had become purely commercial artists, and panoramas were a decidedly middle-brow form (the artist of the Sedan panorama "put this entire starched, blatant, dreary, petit bourgeois, feudal society onto canvas in a manner that is as thorough, embarrassing, and insipid as the society itself," said one critic).

Cycloramas rapidly died out with the emergence of cinema as a competing and more easily exhibited spectacle. But the attempt to create an "immersive" spectacle remains the goal of contemporary museum designers, who are as hungry for sensory novelty as the audiences of a century ago.

In some ways, the Gettysburg Cyclorama was remarkably sophisticated in its presentation of spectacle and history. The moment chosen, Pickett's Charge, ensured maximum sympathy -- and thus maximum profitability -- from its audiences. Northerners could see themselves victorious, while Southerners had the consolation of admiring themselves in heroic defeat at a moment when the course of the war could have gone in a very different direction.

But the "immersiveness" of the cyclorama wasn't just about wowing people with illusion. Its depiction of vital activity on all sides of the viewer captured a very 19th-century sense of history as an almost physical force, like gravity or electricity, that burst into our consciousness with dramatic clarity at certain decisive moments.

At the same time -- and despite its supposedly scientific objectivity based on research, photographs and eye-witness testimony -- it isn't a photograph. The painting purposely obscures details (individual soldiers, the precise trajectory of bullets) that are generally lost in the fog of war.

At least one early souvenir program for the panorama shows a Union and Confederate soldier shaking hands, an image of reconciliation that gained momentum in the decades after the panorama was unveiled. By representing a moment when the balance of power might have changed, the painting, and the larger obsession with Gettysburg as a battlefield, seems to equate the North and South, and neutralize their moral and political differences in a shared sense of passionate commitment and individual heroism. It argues that we all share the wound of Civil War -- which is a convenient way of deflecting attention from the more particular and unequally shared wound of slavery.

Looking at the painting today, you begin to wonder if maybe the medium isn't the message. Like cinema, panorama grew out of a scientific and enlightenment tradition and was championed by an industrial and entrepreneurial one. But the message of the Gettysburg Cyclorama (brought to the United States by a Northern businessman) is all about the nation perpetually trapped at the moment of the South's greatest glory.

The industry of illusionism (which continues with video games and virtual reality) is placed in service of an almost feudal worldview, the "lost cause," which championed an agrarian economy that was out of step with the march of progress that would invent, popularize and rapidly forget the wonders of panorama.

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