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‘Visceral And Powerful’: The Everlasting Appeal Of Giant Art Panoramas

“So much of the panorama experience is visceral and powerful, being transported in front of these massive works of art,” enthused James Fishburne, co-curator of Forest Lawn’s new exhibition Grand Views: The Immersive World of Panoramas. Fishburne spoke with me about this little-known but spectacular art form, taking me behind the scenes of the exhibition he co-curated in conjunction with the Velaslavasay Panorama.

Grand Views offers audiences a rare chance to immerse themselves in the fascinating world of panoramas. The show centers around Forest Lawn’s Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection – which has displayed two enormous panoramas for decades – and it also offers other enormous works, like the Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes, made by artist Sara Velas in 2000. In addition, the show provides a rich assortment of broadsides, rare objects and ephemera from the 19th-century world of panoramas that help audiences truly get inside the creation and exhibition of these massive pieces.

Curating the show, Fishburne worked alongside panorama artist Sara Velas and writer Ruby Carlson, both of whom co-curate the Velaslavasay Panorama – a museum dedicated to panoramas located in nearby Los Angeles. According to Velas, her love of panoramas goes back to her early childhood, and getting to show her work in this exhibit alongside ephemera from panorama history is something of a full-circle moment. “I knew I wanted to make things since I was a child, and being in St Louis I learned about the 19th century panorama tradition. I went on this huge pilgrimage to Europe when I graduated college to try and visit as many of the panoramas as I could from this era. Remarkably, a lot of the artifacts and things we’re displaying in this exhibit are tied to things that I saw in that self-assigned pilgrimage.”

Federated Press, Montreal, Cyclorama Building, Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, c 1920 Photograph: Courtesy of Forest Lawn MuseumCarlson, who has served as secretary-general of the International Panorama Council and who writes on numerous subjects, including panoramas, realized she wanted to dedicate herself to panoramas during a chance visit to the Velaslavasay Panorama, where she had a transformative encounter with the massive Effulgence of the North. “Me and my friends were the only people there at the time, and we spent a good hour in the panorama itself,” she told me. “It was just an incredible atmosphere, unlike anything I’d ever been to before and spending that time with a couple of my favorite people just made it very magical. I spent a lot of time at the Velaslavasay Panorama that day, and as we were leaving, I thought to myself, ‘I want to be here more.’”

With Grand Views: The Immersive World of Panoramas, Fishburne, Velas and Carlson hope to help others understand just how wonderful this massive artform is, while communicating the long and rich history behind it. Due to the Covid-19 lockdowns, the curators had more time than expected to piece the exhibition together, letting them trace the rich web of connections between panoramas and much of Los Angeles history. “The fun part was the early stage, thinking about the connections we want to make,” said Fishburne. “There’s been so many incredible threads that we’ve been able to combine, since we got to let the whole thing marinate for an extra year-and-a-half during the pandemic. I think it really helped to enrich it.”

Ryan Schude, Façade of the Union Theatre (home of the Velaslavasay Panorama 2004-present), 2021 Photograph: Courtesy of Velaslavasay Panorama / Sean Teegarden PhotographyOne of those threads is the history of Los Angeles film-making, which is woven into the history of panoramas in California. Grand Views exhibits a Hollywood backdrop, as well as numerous cinematic artifacts, letting audiences see how these massive artworks have contributed to the development and evolution of film. The exhibition also offers a sketch for a panorama made by Disney imagineer Herbert Ryman, who is celebrated as being the first artist to ever visualize Walt Disney’s aspiration to create a theme park. “It’s really fascinating that between Disney, Hollywood, Forest Lawn, etc there’s this sort of cross-pollination among these worlds. And the final product is different for each of them, but they’re all sort of these very powerful, immersive, moving experiences. For Grand Views, we took slices of panorama history that are also interwoven with LA history.”

A major piece shown in Grand Views is the monumental crucifixion panorama painted by Polish artist Jan Styka – at 195ft by 45ft, it is one of the largest paintings ever created. Simply titled Crucifixion, the work’s immense size and impressive detail give it a dramatic, cinematic air, heightened by the immense hall that Forest Lawn created to house it and the dramatic show it uses to present the work to viewers.

Jan Styka, the Crucifixion (detail of central scene), 1896 Photograph: Courtesy of Forest Lawn MuseumAccording to Fishburne, “Crucifixion is one of the only four surviving crucifixion panoramas in the world.” He went on to detail how, in contrast to the other three, which are exhibited in a circular format, Forest Lawn’s hall draws from LA inspiration. “You step into this building, which uses ecclesiastical architecture, but then it also uses very Los Angeles–inspired architecture. The panorama’s theater space is essentially a movie palace. It’s a panorama presented in the way of a cinematic format.”

Grand Views offers substantial context on the making of Crucifixion, as well as offering windows into the other three major crucifixion panoramas, all currently in Europe. “Through Sarah and Ruby’s contacts with the International Panorama Council, we were able to get artifacts and ephemera from the three others,” said Fishburne. “You get a really rich sense of the history surrounding these works. It’s the behind the scenes look at how these incredible artworks were created and presented.”

In a world where digital experiences are more and more becoming the norm, and where artistic innovations of the 19th century may seem as antiquated as the Pony Express in a world of text messaging, Grand Views offers viewers the chance to challenge their expectations and experience something both old and new. “What I really like about panoramas is that it frames the experience of going to see a painting more theatrically,” said Velas. “I think in particular it’s feeling very special right now because we’re spending so much time in this digital space.”

Grand Views: The Immersive World of Panoramas is on show at Forest Lawn, California, until 10 September

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