History Behind Glass

The exhibition Diorama. Inventing Illusion at Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt misses the diorama’s potential as a tool to explore our digital present.

Mark Dion, Paris Streetscape, 2017, installation view from Dioramas, Palais de Tokyo. Courtesy of Mark Dion / Galerie in Situ – Fabienne Leclerc, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

After premiering in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo, the exhibition Diorama. Inventing Illusion is being shown at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle. As the title suggests, at the exhibition’s core one finds the historical phenomenon of the diorama. The term diorama was used in the 19th century to describe two quite different devices. The first diorama was invented by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) and Charles Marie Bouton (1781-1853) in the first half of the 19th century. Essentially, Daguerre’s diorama was a device that made it possible to animate static images. Like in the cinema, the viewers were seated in front of a monumental screen in a darkened room. Through an elaborate lighting system, special effects and the superimposition of semi-transparent painted canvases, the diorama presented the spectator with church processions, transitions between day and night and dynamic catastrophic events such as shipwrecks or volcano eruptions.

The first two rooms of the exhibition are dedicated to the Daguerre diorama and to its predecessors from the 16th century, namely transparent images with dynamic transitions of light and darkness narrating biblical events. Since nearly all the original diorama canvases have been lost, the work Naguère Daguerre 1 (2005), a diorama restored by Jean Paul Favand, is one of the exhibition’s highlights. It presents the eruption of Vesuvius from the bay of Naples. Here the analogue technology and manpower needed to stage the event are replaced by digital means. Juxtaposed with these dioramas in the tradition of Daguerre are three-dimensional miniature stages depicting biblical events, which are historically related to the second type of the diorama: the habitat diorama. These are three-dimensional tableaux which frequently (but not exclusively) feature animals shown in their natural habitats through a combination of taxidermy, landscape painting and the use of plants and other natural materials. The habitat diorama was invented in the late 19th century. Even though their prominence has strongly declined, they are still integral to many natural history collections and exhibitions.

Jean Paul Favand, Naguère Daguerre 1, 2012. Photo: Jean Mulatier.

The fact that both media were labeled as dioramas is not a sign of the one causally resulting from the other, yet the exhibition presents us with a linear narrative from Daguerre and Bouton’s invention to habitat dioramas. The term ‘diorama’ was a neologism composed of the Greek words ‘dia’ (through) and ‘horama’ (view). Many other optical devices were given similar pseudo-Greek names in order to raise their cultural prestige. Laws of copyright were not clearly stated and often not enforced. Thus, the link between the two dioramas is not as strong as the shared name implies. Both diorama types emerged from the diverse field of 19th-century visual culture as an amalgam of various discourses and phenomena, such as the natural sciences, urbanism, modern tourism, mass media, the popularization of aesthetic experiences and the rise of the middle-class entertainment sector.

Located in the third room, Richard Baquié’s (195296) remake of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (ca. 194666) is an exception to the exhibition’s chronological order. Looking through two peepholes in a wooden wall, the spectator can behold a shapelessly moulded woman figure spread out on a pile of small twigs. In her right hand she holds a gas lamp. The background is comprised of a painting of lush vegetation. The major difference between Duchamp’s original and Baquié’s remake is that the latter is not enclosed by walls entirely. This makes it possible to look behind the scenes and understand how the fascinating image was produced. While Duchamp (18871968) himself staged the 19th-century world of his childhood as a melancholic and ironic homage, Baquié’s remake implicitly critiques the sensory restrictions that devices like peep shows, dioramas and stereoscopic apparatuses impose and the ideological underpinnings of this limiting of access.

Alaska-Schneeschaf, Denali National Park, 1997 © Übersee-Museum. Photo: Matthias Haase.

Irony and playfulness is essentially what the exhibition of the habitat dioramas lacks. In themselves, these dead tableaux can be quite beautiful with their display of intricate detail and the animals’ carefully selected poses. However, the accompanying texts emphasize the role of specific scientists and their contributions to particular fields. The walls are a drab grey and the dioramas are grouped closely together, like they would be in a traditional natural history collection. The disruptive potential of showing such objects in a museum of modern and contemporary art feels underdeveloped in this section. The same goes for the historical comments the exhibition makes on its ethnological dioramas, which stage the habitats of primitive tribes and other non-Western cultures, pointing out on wall panels how such visualizations helped the colonial West to categorize, classify and devaluate otherness. While this is a timely point to make, the curators also miss the opportunity to open up to alternative narratives and associations that the shift from a natural scientific to an aesthetic-artistic environment potentially enables.

The last chapter in the exhibition’s questionable trajectory is the deconstruction and critique of the diorama’s visual regime through postwar and contemporary art. Works by Mark Dion, Jeff Wall, Patrick Jacobs, Isa Genzken, Hiroshi Sugimoto and others are gathered here. Some of them explicitly relate to the diorama and its visual practices. Richard Barnes’s photograph Man with Buffalo (2007) shatters the coherence of an American prairie diorama by placing a janitor with a vacuum cleaner into it. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of the famous dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York reverse the process; rendered in delicate tones of black and white with low contrasts, the artificial landscapes of his series Dioramas (1976–2016) are given back to nature; or, at least, we cannot tell the difference anymore.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Earliest Human Relatives, 1994. Courtesy of Sugimoto Studio.

Other works employ the diorama’s technological premises to pursue different artistic aims, not explicitly relating in a critical fashion to the historical diorama. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s installation Diorama (2012) consists of five connected diorama boxes. They are not intended to transport us into another reality, their depictions are too obviously handmade for that, but they are enchanting nonetheless. Each box is a strange little world with its own colors, cultures, architecture, rituals and flora. The diorama is not a tool for making reality measurable and controllable anymore. Chetwynd’s fantastical dioramas set our imagination free.

It is just a shame that these interesting re-negotiations of the diorama are contained in their isolated chapter within the chronological model that the exhibition proffers. Unfolding a linear narrative from the diorama’s origin to its deconstruction, the exhibition becomes an agent of the diorama’s visual regime, which seeks to map, master and classify reality. Thereby, the show undermines its own critical intentions. I wished to see anachronisms, paradoxes, clashes and surprising connections that would unleash the aesthetic and political potential of all objects and works. The exhibition not only falls short of narrating the diorama’s historical complexity, by establishing a false continuity between the two different types discussed above, it also misses the chance to revitalize the diorama and make it a relevant phenomenon of today. The diorama’s history does not end with its artistic deconstruction. It lives on through current media technologies such as virtual and augmented reality devices and the overall project of digitally mapping and visualizing our world down to its minutest detail.

Diorama. Inventing Illusion, installation view. Photo: Norbert Miguletz / Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt.