Review of The Panorama:
History of a Mass Medium
by Stephan Oettermann

By Danielle Hughes

The word “panorama”, from the Greek words for “all” and “view,” today can be used to refer to anything from a general overview, like a collection of poetry, to the name of a store selling electronics, none of which are what it was coined to mean. Originally, it was the name of a form of painting; large, very long paintings hung on the inside wall of a round room. The viewer stood on a platform in the middle of the room to see representations of cities, landscapes, battles or religious scenes. The end of the eighteenth century saw the invention of the modern panorama. This new form of entertainment quickly became very popular and, for some painters, very lucrative. It bridged the gap between high and low art. During this period where in even the most democratic areas the elite controlled the access to art collections, panoramas were for many in the nineteenth century their first exposure to painting as an art form.

Naturally art historians and scholars have examined and explored such influential works, their evolution, and their fading from popular culture. Panoramas have been covered in articles, a handful of dissertations, chapters in books and even a few books have been devoted to the topic. Yet before the English translation of Stephan Oettermann's book “The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium” was published last year (or “Das Panorama Die Geschichte eines Massenmediums” in the original 1980 version) there had not been an in-depth scholarly examination of panoramas. This thorough, scholarly, yet readable text offers a needed overview of an important historical medium.

Citing Theodore Adorno regarding the importance of studying what is dramatically original about art rather than just examining its precedents, Oettermann believes that the panorama was an invention that was not based on previous developments. Oettermann explores the cultural factors that lead to its creation and popularity. He saw it as a new medium whose time had arrived and that could only develop and be popular at that particular moment. Important elements included the still strong impact of the horizon at the end of the eighteenth century, the rise in popularity of the sensation of giddiness, the desire for views from elevated points (such as towers and mountains), as well as the invention and mass appeal of hot air balloons. He argues that the horizon's importance included the sense of promise lying just out of reach beyond the horizon, which he opposes to the symbolism of prisons (a recurring theme at that time) which kept one from the horizon, as well as changes in vision (from the more easily available telescopes that were frequently used by travelers) to changes in transportation which all moved against the horizon. Oettermann theorizes that the panorama became a form that mediated how the horizon was viewed in the late eighteenth century as well as the period's contradictory and strong emotions toward the horizon.

Furthermore, Oettermann argues that the panorama could not have developed without the industrial revolution, since it needed the large populations in cities to economically support the form. He notes that the Enclosure Act in England forced small farmers to the cities where they paid to view landscapes in a visual format that was enclosed. It is interesting that he does not note the correlation between the size of a city and what cities were depicted, in fact most cities portrayed in panoramas were large cities (frequently with populations over a million at the time they were painted). He convincingly places Robert Barker, in England, as the inventor of the form we know today, while noting the importance of other early artists, especially the German artist and scenery painter Johann Adam Breysig, who independently developed similar ideas.

Early precedents that Oettermann discusses include Baroque painted ceilings and stage sets which utilized curved backgrounds and the tricky perspective necessary to create a convincing illusion, changes in landscape painting in the late eighteenth century; and scientific illustration relating to the geology of mountains (particularly the Alps). Yet he does not explore the changing methods that painters in England during this same period were using to market and sell their works. They were having success charging admission to the exhibition of large historical paintings. Equally significant was Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon (1781), a “moving painting” for which he also charged admission. While this may not have such a direct connection to the visuality of the panorama it did have a definite influence on how they were exhibited, and the profits to be made from this form were crucial to its development and existence. The even handed balancing of several approaches is one of the pleasures of this book. Oettermann has written widely on the history of public entertainment and literature, and here he switches effortlessly between straight factual history, discussions of entertainment, art history, architecture and the effects of commerce on this new form. There is little discussion of painting styles throughout the book, possibly because of the limited number of extant examples surviving. There also remain questions about the connection of panoramas to various cultural and artistic movements of the time, such as how Romanticism impacted the choice of early panorama topics. The author's focus on the circular panorama limits his discussions of the moving panorama, a later important variation of the panoramas form. This also limits the discussion of work in the United States, since many of the major developments here were in moving panoramas. Oettermann's concentration on the form in the nineteenth century also ignores the few panoramas that were created in this century.

Oettermann first explores the origins of panoramas and then he goes on to a discussion of the form's offshoots and the techniques necessary to create a panorama. Then he focuses on panoramas in the countries of England, France, Germany, Austria and the United States, providing a detailed history of the developments in each location. These countries were the major producers and viewers of panoramas, yet it should be remembered that panoramas existed in other countries around the world. This division by country does clarify the development of the form within each country, but it also minimized the international aspects of panoramas. Not only did panoramas tour regionally, but they also traveled worldwide, as did their artists. They were the fore-runners of today's traveling art exhibitions, and created an early international exchange of art concepts and styles. It was not unheard of for traditional paintings to be exhibited in a room that was part of the panorama building. Furthermore, with panoramas traveling between cities, it became more acceptable for art to travel (especially for a profit) and at the same time routes and personal connections developed that encouraged the traveling of art. Later panoramas would be a frequent element in large international exhibitions like the Universal Expositions and World's Fairs of the nineteenth century. Oettermann's focus on nationalism ignores this international aspect.

The history of panoramas in each country is thoroughly discussed, with all of the important painters and displays dealt with. This is backed up by a judicious use of source materials, especially contemporary reviews. He provides information on many panoramaists who were not widely discussed in English with the extensive bibliography and footnotes offering an excellent starting point for research in this field. Few changes occurred to the book between its German and English editions. Not surprising was the change from a vertical to a horizontal format for the book; it emphasizes the horizontal nature of both the medium and the primary images. On the other hand, inside the back cover of the German version was in a pocket with printed copies of major panoramas that you could take out and unfold. These wonderful, but expensive prints are not included in the newer version, which has one of the panoramas printed in color on the jacket and another in black and white for the extended frontispiece. The English translation provides the many wonderful black and white illustrations of the German version. Oettermann's book is the definitive overview of panoramas. Not only does he offer a new discussion of the visuality of panoramas, but he also provides a detailed examination of their history. He clarifies the issue of who invented the panorama while insightfully illuminating possible precedents. The discussion of the techniques of creating panoramas is the most extensive to date. The high level of scholarship and intensive research, as well as the abundance of illustrations, make this an impressive addition to the literature on panoramas.