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  • The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium *
  • Ralph Hyde (bio)
The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium. By Stephan Oettermann, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider. New York: Zone Books, 1997; distributed by MIT Press. Pp. 407; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $37.50.

Stephan Oettermann’s Das Panorama first appeared in 1980. It was a frustrating business. Here at last, very obviously, was the fundamental work on “orama entertainment,” the book that panoramaniacs had been waiting for and so much needed. But it was in German. It is shameful that that should have been a problem, but for most of the enthusiasts in the subject in the English-speaking world it certainly was. When researching and selecting for the Barbican Art Gallery’s Panoramania! exhibition in 1988–89, I resorted to employing a German secondary school teacher who translated hunks of text where I was weak and Stephan Oettermann was strong—an expensive but crucial exercise.

But now, oh joy! Das Panorama is in English, and in a translation that reads well. Instead of being 11 inches by 8.5 inches (upright) it is now 8.5 by 11 (landscape), which means that the panorama reproductions that had been tucked into a pocket in the back are dispersed throughout the volume itself, and many more long images can be accommodated. The bibliography, but not the text, has been updated. The volume is attractively designed, a pleasure to hold and refer to.

Fooling the eye is what panorama entertainment is all about. Standing in the center of a 360-degree image, its light source hidden, its top and its bottom obscured, one experiences the sensation of being actually there in the townscape or at the battle depicted. Or at the Crucifixion itself, be that its subject. One judges the panorama according to how effectively one is fooled, not according to the quality of the art. In fact really good art can be a distraction, seriously reducing the panorama’s effectiveness. Oettermann’s first, very substantial chapter is devoted to the technology of panoramas, [End Page 900] demonstrating how the trick is achieved for 360-degree panoramas and also for dioramas, in which scenes are transformed by the manipulation of a system of blinds, shutters, and pulleys. Something of the technology called for in displaying cosmoramas, moving panoramas, georamas, and panstereoramas is also supplied.

The strength of Oettermann’s book is that the author does not just give us his conclusions drawn from the sources he has used; he liberally provides us with source material, too. Contemporary advertisements, patents, reviews, and accounts are transcribed at length. The result is a meticulously organized scrapbook with text that enables one, to some extent at any rate, to develop one’s own opinions and draw one’s own conclusions. Certain subjects are explored in depth: the cosmoramas of Hubert Sattler, for example, and especially the phenomenon of fairground panoramas. Other subjects possibly of equal importance—pleasure garden panoramas, for example, which were significant in the English-speaking world—Oettermann leaves for others to explore.

The bulk of the book deals with the panorama phenomenon geographically. The scope is international, though the emphasis is emphatically on Western Europe and the United States. What needs to be understood is that for panoramas, as for circuses, national boundaries were irrelevant. Showmen took them wherever there was demand, which turned out to be almost everywhere. They arrived in Australia as early as 1850, and would reach New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Brazil. A moving panorama featuring a tour of Europe was being exhibited in Yokohama in 1866. At the beginning of the twentieth century cinematic competition in most places caused the panorama to go into near-terminal decline. Not so in Russia. There, where airships continued to be developed, built, and used until the 1950s, 360-degree and huge semicircular panoramas continued to be painted by the Red Army’s Grekov Studio right up to the collapse of communism. In China, new giant panoramas are now appearing on the scene almost at the rate of one per year. By 2000 there will be seven. Back in Europe, Feszty’s Panorama of the Occupation of Hungary by the...

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pp. 900-901
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