Diorama – Inventing Illusion is the title of the exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt dedicated to the cultural history of vision. A diorama tells stories and describes habitats using artistic media to create an illusion as realistic as possible. What sounds a bit outdated as a subject at the beginning proves one of the most surprising and enlightening exhibitions of this year during the visit. The Schirn Kunsthalle presents about 100 exhibits, among them dioramas from the 18th century to the present and shows that the diorama represents an important source of inspiration also for artists of the 20th and 21st century such as Marcel Duchamp, Jeff Wall and Isa Genzken in their exploration of staged seeing and questioning the interaction between illusion and reality.
The literal translation of the word diorama means to “look through“ or to “see through“. Usually a diorama is a stage-like installation in which a real or fictitious scenery with historic figures or animal species as protagonists in their natural habitat is depicted. This virtual world is separated from the real space of the exhibition only by a glass pane, but the goal is to pull the visitor over onto the stage of this artificial imaginary world through a perfect illusion. Anything that serves to release people from the dullness of everyday life today, to relocate them to a different world by means of optical tricks, from the cinema to computer games and virtual reality, is based on the cultural history of seeing which has been established by the diorama.
The curatorial concept of the exhibition at the Schirn comes from Laurent Le Bon, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris, who had been fascinated by this topic for a long time already and has realized the exhibition project together with his colleagues from the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Schirn Kunsthalle. The show explores the history of the diorama and its original forms and takes a close look at its importance for contemporary art as well as the entertainment industry. The prototype of the diorama emerged in Italy and France in the 17th century as devotional object of popular piety. In religious displays crucification scenes and the mystery of faith were staged, also the manger has emerged from it. Among others also works by the nun and wax doll maker Caterina De Julianis who lived from 1695 to 1742 are shown at the Schirn.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Caterina de Julianis, The Penitent Magdalene, 1717
With the projection of light effects onto a canvas Daguerre anticipated the cinema.
The pioneer of the diorama as we know it still today was Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1781 – 1851). Actually Daguerre was a painter and is considered as one of the fathers of photography, that’s why he was very familiar with the tricks of optical illusion. In 1822 he developed an optic-mechanical playhouse with the audience sitting like in an amphitheatre that was revolving imperceptibly and setting out for an imaginary journey to faraway countries. Dagerre declared that it “offers the viewer all means of illusion.“ Stories were painted on large semitransparent canvases that were set in motion within this walkable theatre by means of light effects and stage mechanics. Thus the image space was expanded and enriched by an entirely new quality of illusionism.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Louis Daguerre, ca. 1830
The new technology took the fairs by storm, numerous carnies were fascinated by the world novelty and showed dioramas with illuminated canvases that staged historic events. They were moved by automatons and orchestras provided the background music. The exhibition at the Schirn also shows the work Naguère Daguerre by Jean Paul Favand from 2012 which consists of two painstakingly restored canvases from a mechanical theatre from the 19th century. Light effects and the rumble of thunder tell the story of the eruption of the Vesuvius at the bay of Naples, today the story is animated by digital technology. In the 19th century motion pictures were projected onto the original canvas for the first time which made this form of the diorama a forerunner of the cinema.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Jean Paul Favand, Naguère Daguerre, 2012
It was the age of wonders, numerous inventions and discoveries were made, while explorers brought exotic animals, plants and objects of art from faraway countries to Europe. Cabinets of curiosities and freak shows were booming at the fairs, laying the foundation for today’s entertainment industry. The world was systematically divided, the knowledge about it multiplied, was photographed and documented. Poet Charles Baudelaire longed for the time when the diorama still served the illusion, after photography had taken off on its worldwide triumphal course in the second half of the 19th century. Baudelaire appreciated the diorama “whose brutal and overwhelming magic is liable to impose a beneficial illusion upon me.“ For him dream and lie added up to the illusion that was next to truth.
The diorama exhibition at the Schirn shown the beginnings of hyperrealism.
However, the technological progress couldn’t be held up and marked the beginning of knowledge society. The exponentially increasing knowledge about nature and man needed to be imparted, the viewer had to be educated in a school of vision. When the first natural history museums emerged as temples of knowledge, the big moment of the diorama came for the second time. No other presentation form was better appropriate to impart natural history and anthropological knowledge in a visual way. The diorama as glass showcase was meant to both overwhelm and to educate and is standard in many historic museum collections until today.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Erich Boettcher, Dall’s Sheep
It stages the human knowledge of the world and directs the view of the observer to the displayed context by taking science to the stage of the theatre through the illusionist effect of the diorama. One of the most important forms of the diorama became the so-called habitat diorama where animals were staged in their natural environment. Especially exotic animals promised the illusion of adventure and put the audience under their spell. Taxidermy had made enormous progress in the 19th century, in the meantime it was possible to present animals in such a true-to-life way that they couldn’t be discerned from living animals anymore. A new way of interdisciplinary cooperation emerged, with artists and scientists working together to achieve the perfect illusion.
While in the past animals could be modelled only in plaster, wood or stone, now it was possible to pull the sloughed skin over the model and to give the animal sculpture a deceptively real-looking character. Taxidermy and the corresponding habitat were also the birth of model making and hyperrealism which founded an independent school of art that is topical until today. Here the art of landscape painting met the sculptural craft of the taxidermist who staged the taxidermised animals in naturalistic landscape sceneries. In the field of character design in the film industry the model making knowledge that had been established in taxidermy of the 19th century still plays a major role despite computer animation.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Jules Terrier, The Combat between the Lion and the Gazelle, 1891
The diorama raised the awareness of ecology.
The lifelike taxidermised animals are paradoxical objects, on the one hand they don’t represent any artistic idea and are frozen forever, on the other hand they continue to exist in their real bodies as representations of their own past. Among the most important taxidermists of their time rank Rowland Ward (1848-1912), Edward Hart (1847-1928) and Carl Akeley (1864-1924). British artist Rowland Ward who had learnt the craft of taxidermy in the workshop of his father revolutionized the art of taxidermy with his sculptural and painterly skills. In contrast to the past when the animals has been presented in static postures Ward created spectacular scenes by bringing the inanimate bodies of the animals to life through a dynamic dramaturgy. By consistently exploring new techniques and regular visits to the zoo where he studied the living animals he achieved an unprecedented naturalism.
His first workshop in London turned into one of the most successful taxidermy companies that were specialized on hunting trophies. Ward’s great success also benefitted from the general discussion about the functions of the museums which changed from purely scientific presentations to spectacular stagings, thus developing the form of the diorama further. For the collection of the Duke of Orléans Ward created dioramas at the end of the 19th century that belong to the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris since 1926.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Rowland Ward, Wandering Albatross, 1904
One of the most impressive examples of diorama design is the Akeley Hall of African Mammals in the American Museum of Natural History in New York where a sequence of dioramas with lifelike gazelles, zebras, hyaenas, elephants and monkeys is arranged. Taxidermist Carl Akeley had studied the animals during his Africa trip in 1920/21, he photographed and even filmed them which served him as a basis for the remarkably realistic representations and natural movements of his taxidermised animals. The Schirn also shows his footage and the bust of a gorilla which he created for the American Museum of Natural History. But due to his work Akeley also had become an animal rights activist who campaigned for the preservation of the habitats of the gorillas.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Carl Akeley, The Old Man of Mikeno
Often a diorama tells more about the narrator than the story that is displayed. In the 19th century the anthropomorphic taxidermy emerged as a variation of the habitat diorama taxidermist Walter Potter had specialized on. He presented taxidermised animals in human poses and arranged them in social groups as they would be impossible in nature. The exhibition at the Schirn shows his composition Happy Family with birds, birds of prey and mammals having peacefully gathered around a tree without living out their natural hunting and flight instincts.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Walter Potter, Happy Family
Around 1870 man enters the stage of the diorama creating the anthropological diorama. Due to the world exhibitions in Paris this form of diorama spreads throughout Europe rapidly. The second half of the 19th century was the height of colonialism which misused the anthropological diorama as a propagandistic instrument of power in order to demonstrate the alleged superiority of the white race and to legitimize their hegemonial striving for power. From today’s point of view the anthropological dioramas of the colonial era which paraded “savages“ are the sad evidence of the guilt the Western civilization has brought upon itself dealing with different cultures.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, G-M Salgé, The Gold of the Rain Forest, before 1919
With Marcel Duchamp’s posthumous legacy the Schirn shows the diorama of the modern era.
The show at the Schirn isn’t only a presentation of the cultural history of vision, but also an exhibition about exhibiting. From the staging of a message to direct the view of the observer the job description of the curator emerged in the 21st century. Marcel Duchamp was one of the first artists who recognized the groundbreaking influence of the curatorial work. His stagings of the major Surrealism exhibitions in 1938 and 1942 are legendary until today and showcase modern storytelling in art. Like with the invention of his ready-mades Duchamp had understood earlier than others how human perception can be manipulated through the diorama.
In the last 20 years of his life he worked in secret on a work that is based on the functional principle of the diorama and was meant to be shown posthumously, as it were as his artistic testament. For Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage he wrote a manual for posterity how to build and present the work. Initially the eye of the viewer is guided through a hole in a wall to the dimmed area of a diorama and finally catches a glimpse of the undressed body of a woman in a landscape. The Philadelphia Museum of Art commissioned the realization of his testament discretely in 1969, one year after Duchamp’s death, and presented Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage in public without opening.
The erotically charged atmosphere of the work fascinated French sculptor and object artist Richard Baquié (1952-1996) so strongly that he decided to build another version according to Duchamp’s construction manual. His realization follows exactly the same voyeuristic eye catching sequence, however, he made the installation of the diorama that lies behind the opening visible from all sides, thus unmasking the illusion as mere backdrop and reducing the voyeurism of the viewer to absurdity. The deconstruction of the illusion corresponded to the general approach of postwar art in order to question and disrupt traditional gridlocked ways of seeing.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Marcel Duchamp / Richard Baquié, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage
The overwhelming magic of illusion is the key for the cultural history of vision.
Nevertheless the diorama continued to respresent a source of inspiration for many artists of the 20th and 21st century, however, from a different perspective, not anymore the perfect illusion, but the interplay of reality and artificiality was in the focus of their works now. Artists like Robert Gober and Hiroshi Sugimoto were fascinated by the ambivalent appearance of the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, they took photographs of the animals in their artificial habitats without the frame that represents the transition from real to imaginary respectively dead and alive. Through the illusion of the illusion they brought the animals back to life and relocated them to a seemingly untouched nature.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gemsbok, 1994
In his photographs Richard Barnes explores the backdrop-like character of the diorama that can be entered like an artificial stage of life and left again. Also he deconstructs the illusion by documenting the installation process and showing still half packed taxidermised animals together with museum staff who furbish up the diorama or take a nap in it. What is real and what is imaginary? The Schirn also presents the work Paris Streetscape by Mark Dion that he created specifically for the exhibition and where he displays a section of the Paris streetscape in a large-size showcase. Here nature is completely overlaid with rubbish of civilization, plastic waste and junk, the artificiality becomes truth. The classical ecological habitat diorama is reinterpreted into an environment which is remodeled by man where the animals seek to survive through adaptation. With his consumerism and the destruction of the environment man annihilates the border between natural and artificial.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Richard Barnes, Man with Buffalo, 2007
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Richard Barnes, Single Ungulate and Man Amid Blue Crosses, 2008
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Mark Dion, Paris Streetscape, 2017
In his work Bête Noire Canadian artist Kent Monkman who is a member of the tribe of the Cree is dealing with the living conditions of the indigenous peoples of North America. Fascinated by the life-size dioramas in the Manitoba Museum where members of the indigenous tribes are depicted in idyllic scenes he saw the contradiction to reality at the same time, with poverty and racism being part of their everyday life. In front of an American landscape panorama Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is enthroned on a motorbike, a sexually ambivalent figure that expresses the suppression of gender varience which is rooted in indigenous cultures by the settlers.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Kent Monkman, Bête Noire, 2014
Today dioramas are facing a growing competition due to innovative educational opportunities which are more attractive because of their interactive user interfaces. Nevertheless the illusionist medium of the diorama remains fascinating, it brings back memories of the lost world of wonders when the “overwhelming magic of illusion“, as Baudelaire put it, and the entire knowledge about the world still could be captured in one single room. The movie Night at the Museum is the very essence of this spell to look at the world with the amazed eyes of a child, the excerpt that is shown at the Schirn captures the essential moment: when the glass pane breaks in the American Museum of Natural History and the beings that are displayed behind come to life. The boundary between illusion and reality is suspended, the viewer immerses himself into a virtual world.
Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Diorama – Inventing Illusion, Isa Genzken, Empire Vampire III
At the same time the fascination that exudes from the diorama is due to the human primal fear of the inanimate that comes alive in animal or human shape by means of magic. The literary genre of the Gothic Novel that had emerged at the end of the 18th century, with automatons, undead and human-mechanical hybrids showing up for the first time, was refined by the hyperrealism of taxidermy. In the 21st century an entertainment industry has emerged from it that makes a multi-billion-dollar amount of turnover, in the end it’s just the perfect illusion it is striving for and the optical tricks the retina of the human eye cannot discern from reality anymore. But why is man in search of a constructed reality? Because the world we live in doesn’t suffice the human spirit and the real space is shrinking to the same degree that we survey, document, exploit and destroy the very last corners of our planet. Therefore mankind is forced to play demiurge and to create new parallel universes that augment human perception and break the separating glass pane between us and the diorama. A life in the matrix.
06.10.17 – 21.01.18 Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt am Main