|SANFORD WURMFELD’S E-CYCLORAMA
Sanford Wurmfeld's E-Cyclorama was painted eight years after his first remarkable essay in this format, the Cyclorama 2000 [ 1 ] . The conception of that work already predated its execution by almost twenty years, however. Shaped in turn by the experience of finally seeing his first cyclorama complete, the E-Cyclorama therefore reflects the long evolution of an idea.
The first cyclorama is circular and is based on the natural colour circle, familiar in nature as the rainbow. The second is oval and in it both the key of the colour and its character are quite different, though its organisation still depends on the sequence of the colour circle. They both belong in a long tradition. They are in effect enormous paintings, but instead of being painted on a flat surface - canvas, panel, wall, or even ceiling - their support, though in fact canvas, is the inner surface of a very large cylinder, or in the second one its oval equivalent. This structure is raised on a platform and the spectators enter from beneath by a stairway which brings them up at the centre to view the painting from within. This form derives from the original Panorama first created in Edinburgh in 1788 by the painter Robert Barker [ 2 ]. He maintained it was a new form of painting, patented it and called it the Panorama. What, since that time, we have called panoramic painting, was not new, however. There had been plenty of examples of extensive views before this and these had even occasionally taken in the full circle of the horizon. In the seventeenth century, Wenceslaus Hollar made three hundred and sixty degree views of both London and Prague, for instance, although as these are etched, they are naturally small in scale.
In Edinburgh itself just a few years earlier than Barker’s first Panorama, the painter Alexander Runciman had painted the complete circle of the view of the city from the chimney stack of one of its tallest buildings. It does not survive, but may have been part of Barker’s inspiration. Nevertheless, even to call such circular images ‘panoramas’ before Barker is an anachronism. The word has now passed into the language, but it was a neologism. He made it up and his idea of painting such a circular picture and mounting it on the inside of a cylindrical surface, perpendicular to the spectator's line of vision while being deep enough and on a sufficient scale to fill the whole horizontal field of vision, really was new. It also made radical assumptions about the nature of painting.
After his initial projects, however, in 1789 Barker went on to make a second and definitive version of the Edinburgh view. Taking in the full circle from the hilltop, for the first time it was constructed so that the spectator had to go inside and stand at its centre. In that position Barker's painting entirely filled the viewer’s field of vision. No matter which way they turned, there was no visible link to the world beyond the canvas. The situation that this created for the spectator was to transport them in effect into what was, in the modern phrase, a virtual reality; it replaced ordinary reality with another fictive one. The spectator was no longer looking at a picture, but was within it. That was new, though even then not entirely so. This situational effect had been the ambition of Baroque artists when they developed the painted ceiling as a space apparently opening beyond and quite independently of the architecture that supports it, sweeping the spectator up into a glorious world beyond gravity. In the ceiling he painted in the Palazzo Barberini, Pietro Cortona was the first to do this in a way that really did break out of the actual architecture, though there were important precedents for this in paintings by Rubens and before him by Correggio. One of the most spectacular examples of this dramatic extension of the architectural space, however, is the ceiling of St Ignazio in Rome, painted in the late seventeenth century by Padre Pozzo with a complex perspective that demands a single viewpoint. This is clearly marked by a circular slab in the floor of the church, the point where the spectator must stand for the illusion of the ceiling to work to its full dramatic effect. The ceiling of Sant Ignazio is a work much admired by Sanford Wurmfeld and, as we shall see, the form of the E-Cyclorama reflects the inspiration of the Baroque.
As Panoramas became a popular form of visual entertainment, purpose-built buildings were designed for their display. These were usually cylindrical in shape. Once inside, you entered the actual Panorama from beneath, but the floor of its inner circle was not flat. Instead you climbed up onto a small platform at the centre. The foreground dropped out of sight before it reached the canvas so that there was nothing in your near field of vision by which to locate the surface of the painting. From that position, its circle surrounding you really was all you could see. Nor were there any reference points outside its circle.
Very few original Panorama paintings survive. They were usually part of a programme with a periodic changing display and so, although very large and cumbersome, they were rolled up and moved regularly. In consequence they suffered inevitable steady deterioration until in the end they were scrapped. Most of the few that do survive have done so because for, whatever reason, they stayed in one place. One such survivor is the Panorama Mesdag at the Hague [ 3 ]. Seeing it for the first time in 1981 was the inspiration for Wurmfeld’s ambition to create his own painting using the Panorama form. The illustration of the Panorama Mesdag gives a good impression of how the arrangement works, even though it is small compared to some of the vast creations produced at the height of the form's popularity which could cover up to ten thousand square feet of canvas.
Wurmfeld’s cycloramas are also small compared even to Mesdag’s Panorama however. Although directly inspired by such colossal antecedents as Padre Pozzo’s ceiling in St Ignazio, he has deliberately kept within a certain scale so as not to overwhelm the spectator by sheer impact, but to focus instead on the relatively intimate experience of colour. Even so, his cycloramas clearly demonstrate that the impact of this kind of painting is quite startling, unexpected even. When his first cyclorama was completed and installed, even the artist himself was surprised at the sheer physical impact that it had, even though he had worked on it for so long and knew in theory what the effect would be. It certainly explains the appeal of the panorama as popular entertainment as no words can.
The University of Edinburgh holds a unique watercolour version of Barker’s original Panorama, the circle of the view from Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. By its nature a view to the horizon, the subject matter of panorama painting generally followed this precedent. Landscapes and townscapes were its usual themes: views of both familiar and exotic places and also very often of battles. Both land and sea battles lent themselves to the panoramic treatment and it was during the Napoleonic wars that the form first achieved mass popularity. Of course when the subject was landscape, or some dramatic event spread out across an expanse of land or sea like the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of the Nile, the panorama was by no means abstract. The spectator took specific information from what he or she saw. Indeed the panorama as it evolved was very much about information. That was an important part of its appeal. Nevertheless, in spite of its success as popular entertainment and its dependence in this on descriptive or informative subject matter, the panorama has a significant place in the history of modem art where generally subject matter, at least as information, has since then been abandoned.
A topical panorama could be an immense draw and it rapidly became a very successful form of entertainment. In various forms it flourished throughout the nineteenth century. These were given different names and in the United States the word cyclorama, adopted now by Sanford Wurmfeld, replaced Barker's original name — perhaps because the word panorama had proved so successful in ordinary usage that it had lost its distinctive meaning denoting this particular art form.
The panorama and its derivatives were only finally displaced as the dominant form of popular visual entertainment by the advent of the cinema. Indeed for a while the early cinema and the panorama worked in tandem; films were projected in panorama buildings; in the way they involve and indeed imaginatively transport the spectator, there is a clear analogy between the two forms. Nevertheless the difference remains significant. Film immediately adopted narrative as its main structure and, to serve the needs of a story, cutting became the norm. Consequently the image was discontinuous. In contrast, whatever its subject matter, indeed even in the modern abstract form of Wurmfeld’s two cycloramas where there is no subject as such at all, the panorama in Barker’s original form presents us with the indivisibility of our experience of time and space and also its inescapable subjectivity.
Nevertheless it might seem that for Sanford Wurmfeld to adopt the form of the panorama now for his own purpose is just a piece of artistic appropriation and that his radically abstract imagery could have nothing whatever to do with Barker's original project with its stress on description and information. Wurmfeld's imagery is certainly modern. He grew up in New York at a time when the Abstract Expressionists were painting their greatest pictures and their exciting example certainly shaped his own ambition. The scale and energy of the work of Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline, for instance, or the grand simplicity of Barnett Newman’s pictures, perhaps still stand behind what he is doing now.
From that first inspiration Wurmfeld began his career in the 1960s in the style of colour field painting then evolving in the US and particularly in New York. Nor was he alone in moving from that starting point into the exploration of the optical effects of colour. As his understanding of colour evolved, however, and as his imagery grew ever more complex, when he first saw Mesdag’s Panorama in the Hague he formed the unique ambition to create something like the Cyclorama. It was a logical extension of what he was doing in a number of large paintings that he undertook at the time. Some of these were as much as thirty feet across. They filled the spectator's field of vision, but however large, they were still conventional paintings in form. As we shall see, with his first cyclorama he stepped out of that convention altogether in a remarkable way and this has taken him into areas that no-one else has explored and which he has developed further still in his new E-Cyclorama.
The realisation of the artist’s ambition to paint his first cyclorama was made possible by a commission from the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen to carry out the project for the Millennium. Hence its title, Cyclorama 2000. The second project, the E-Cyclorama - the E prefix refers to its elliptical shape - was begun in turn in 2007 and was made possible by the support of the Dunard Fund which had sponsored the exhibition of Cyclorama 2000 in Edinburgh in 2004. The E-Cyclorama, though different in shape, preserves the same general dimensions as the first Cyclorama. An ellipse eight metres by ten replaces the circle of eight and a half metres. One calculation that the artist had to make early on was to find what dimensions of the ellipse would give him the same circumference and thus the same painted area as his first cyclorama. He discovered quickly how complex the geometry of the ellipse is. In the end however the figures are very close. The painted surface of both cycloramas is two and a half metres high. Both have a circumference of approximately 27 metres. The actual painting in both consists of four, 6.75 metre canvasses joined to form a continuous painted surface with a total area of around 60.75 square metres, or nearly eight hundred square feet. Within the painting, the choice of colours and their careful matching is entirely intuitive. There are one hundred and nine separate colours in the E-Cyclorama, considerably more than the seventy two colours in the Cyclorama 2000. This choice of colours has to be made - and mixed - by eye. There is no other way. That is the nature of colour. No matter how scientifically we analyse it, or seek to describe it formally, our experience remains intuitive. The fact that the surface is actually painted is also very important. It not only records the artist's presence as maker. It also gives vitality, a kind of recorded energy, even to a structure of such restraint.
The choice of a circle for the form of the first painting was perhaps natural enough. It was the usual form of the panorama, but it also implicitly refers the spectator to the convention of the colour circle used from the earliest days of the scientific discussion of colour to represent the progression of colours and their relationships as they modulate between the primaries through the secondaries; red shades through orange to yellow, yellow through green to blue and blue through violet back to red again. This colour circle provides the basic arrangement for both cycloramas, though on the simple framework that it provided the artist has built two subtle and complex compositions that are very different from each other.
The choice of the ellipse for the second cyclorama develops the idea of the first, but it adds a reflection on our perception of space to the manipulation of our perception of colour. It also throws light on the broader inspiration of these remarkable paintings, however, and their place in the history of art, for an exclusive focus on the colour circle and related colour theory might suggest they belonged more in the history of science. The artist is of course very expert in these things. His knowledge of colour theory and his practical understanding of the behaviour of colour and our response to it is manifest, not just in these paintings, but in all his work. Nevertheless it is important to remember that these are paintings, however formal their appearance, not scientific experiments, and so they do indeed belong in the wider history of art; if at one remove, they also perhaps have a place in the history of architecture too, or at least they have characteristics in common with certain architectural forms. They also share with architecture what I have described as their situational character, particularly with Baroque architecture.
It is no accident that it was in the Baroque period in Italy that the dramatic form of ceiling painting that I described earlier was developed as an adjunct to architecture. The oval of the E-Cyclorama is a direct reminder of this. As a young man the artist went on an extraordinary and comprehensive tour of European architecture with his elder brother, the late Michael Wurmfeld, who became an architect and who was at the time studying architecture at Princeton. This journey included the then very unfashionable baroque churches of Rome. Later, spending two years in Rome, the artist became more familiar with these remarkable buildings and he is clear that the inspiration of his latest Cyclorama was in part at least the elliptical shape of Bernini’s church of San Andrea al Quirinale and perhaps also of Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattre Fontane, though the elliptical form of the latter is less straightforward than it is of the former [ 4 ].
Bernini, of course, also used the ellipse to dramatic effect in the Piazza of St Peter’s. In San Andrea he manipulates our sense of space by preparing us to expect that the church is in fact circular. We enter on the shorter axis. Facing us is the altar lit by natural daylight. This falls from a concealed window high above and is brighter than the ambient light in the church. Because we anticipate a circle, the short axis of the oval on which we are actually standing brings this drama of light closer to us than intuition would lead us to expect. Its impact is correspondingly much greater. The whole thing is a brilliant piece of theatre created entirely by space and light and of course by the way the architecture leads the spectator to the precise spot in the building where the drama has maximum effect. It is masterly situational design in fact.
Bernini’s church plays a game with history too, however. The expectation that it is a circular building is reinforced by the fact that anybody entering it knows instinctively that Bernini’s model was the Pantheon, Rome’s great circular temple from the early second century that stands just half a mile away. Because of its circular form, however, the Pantheon in turn became the model for most of the panorama buildings that followed Barker’s first construction in Leicester Square. By choosing the oval for his new cyclorama, Wurmfeld joins Bernini’s game with history, but adds another chapter to it. The E-Cyclorama is of course a thoroughly modern work, not a piece of baroque theatrical design. Nevertheless we do tend to overestimate the uniqueness of the modern tradition and ignore the real continuities that shape it.
Like Bernini, Wurmfeld achieves drama by playing with our spatial perceptions and upsetting our intuitive expectation of the shape of the space we are entering when we go into his painting. The inspiration of the Baroque does go a little further still with the E-Cyclorama, however. As well as colour, or rather through colour, the E-Cyclorama manipulates light. The colour modulates as it moves through the spectrum around the oval so that on the long axis the pure hue of deep violet at one end is opposed to brilliant luminous yellow at the other, while on the short axis the intermediate colours of the colour circle move towards the grey scale [ 5 ]. The effect is dramatic and the drama is one of light, shadow and space. There of course the analogy with Bernini ends, however. He used light certainly, but it was Turner and the Impressionists who sought to paint it by exploiting pure colour. Most directly, however, Wurmfeld is Seurat’s heir in the way he uses colour laid on in a pattern of regular marks which through the process of optical mixture create a dramatic compound experience in the eye of the beholder.
In planning the E-cyclorama the artist prepared a series of detailed colour studies of the individual sections and also of the whole painting in which he worked out the colour relationships and sequences. He then went on to make the quarter –scale model of the finished work [ 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 , 12 , 13 , 14 , 15 ]. Measuring approximately eight feet by ten, this was a major undertaking in itself. Before he did this however, he completed a group of five large paintings which also played a part in the evolution of the design of the E- Cyclorama. These paintings were particularly important in the development of the way in which in it the painter exploits the effect of light in colour. Three of these large paintings are in a square format and in them he explores what might be called the light effect of colour; the idea of creating luminosity without tonal contrast, using instead the inherent difference in tonal value between the different colours of the spectrum [ 22 , 23 , 24 ]. The paintings represent respectively, strong light, middle light and dark. Remarkably he manages to achieve these three effects without losing luminosity and that is the lesson that he has taken to the E-Cyclorama where the deep glow of the blue-violet at one end is in its own way as luminous as the brilliant yellow-orange of the other.
Two other paintings were also made in preparation for the finished work are long, horizontal compositions [ 25 , 26 ]. One has at its centre the brilliance of yellow and the other has the deep tone of blue-violet. What the painter realised was how the power of the central colour, reinforced by its colour context, pushes outwards and distorts the strict geometry of the rectangle as we perceive it. This is an effect that he has incorporated into the composition of the E-Cyclorama and is part of the visual drama it presents. It links back to Turner and even to Tiepolo whose luminous ceilings break out of the constraint of the architectural space that contains them in just this way.
In both cycloramas the basic unit of the composition is a compound grid created by superimposing, within a square, one grid over another that does not quite match it [ 16 ]. In the E-Cyclorama this is composed of a square with a side of thirty one small squares superimposed on an equal square with the side divided into thirty smaller squares. The two grids start in phase and end in phase so that at the edges we see a full square, but in the intermediate parts the elements replace each other along a constant line of graduation. As each of the overlapping grids is a separate colour, the effect is that the colour changes across the grid both horizontally and vertically as one colour progressively replaces the other. The whole composition consists of forty eight of these square units arranged in two circles of twenty four above and below a central horizon.
The Cyclorama 2000 is basically a simple colour circle. Twenty four hues progress through the spectrum. But they also vary on the vertical axis on either side of the central horizon line. From that line they graduate upwards to a dark version of the colour, the shade, and downwards towards a light version, the tint. The horizontal division between shade and tint means that variations on the twenty four hues are actually divided between forty eight squares, while the light-dark progression brings the total to seventy two distinct colours. As you scan the circle, these change in continuous, regular variation through the spectrum.
By keeping the same size and this same basic formal arrangement for the E-Cyclorama, starting from a colour circle and shifting up to shade and down to tint on either side of a horizon line, the artist has made more telling those changes that he has made and allows us to see their impact more clearly. The first of these changes is the shape, as we have seen, but this is also carried into the colour with a surprising effect. Instead of the progression from one pure hue to the next which leads our eye around the circle, the colour is influenced by the differing axes of the ellipse [ 17 ]. He has placed the red-orange and blue-green sections of the spectrum on the short axis. This is where the circumference is nearest to a notional neutral centre and, as though influenced by that fact, he has graduated the colour away from the pure hue towards the grey scale so that, where the short axis meets the horizon line that divides the top and bottom sections of the painting, this progression down through diminishing intensity of hue reaches a pure flat grey at the central point, though in fact the induced colour that we see in these grey passages makes it difficult to register them as simply grey
[ 18 ]. The colour also progresses upwards towards the shade and downwards towards the tint, i.e. towards darker colour above and lighter below. On the long axis the colour is pure, so that the yellow orange and blue violet passages are respectively intensely luminous and deep and dark. Because of the changing colour rhythm, we cannot perceive the ellipse clearly. The dramatic accents on the long axis draw it closer to us and pull the ellipse back towards the circle. Our perceptions of both colour and space become uncertain. What we think of as certainties are no more than relative and provisional.
The two long paintings that Wurmfeld did in preparation for the E-Cyclorama are organised in the same way as it is, but in addition all five of these preparatory paintings have painted borders. The E-Cyclorama itself also has a border along its top and bottom edges. This is a small, but significant difference from the first cyclorama and it has a dramatic effect. It is a device that Seurat invented, using a painted frame to enhance the picture it contains. Evening, Honfleur in the Museum of Modern Art is a very beautiful example of this [ 20 ]. The frame is painted in the same technique as the picture and in colours chosen to enhance and complement by subtle contrasts the adjacent part of the painting. In the E-Cyclorama this framing device has the depth of a single square of the colour grid. In a darker shade at the top and lighter tint at the bottom, it follows the colour circle, but where the main body of the painting changes intensity towards grey, the border maintains the same saturation throughout. Thus on the short axis in the blue-green and red-orange passages of the spectrum, as the saturation of the main colour field diminishes towards grey, the border stands out in contrast. On the long axis however, where in the yellow-orange and blue-violet passages of the spectrum the colour in the main body of the painting reaches full saturation, the border merges with it.
In both cycloramas, the structure is highly formal, but the effect is not formal at all. We can read the broad arrangement easily, but the detailed organisation is elusive and very difficult to analyse visually. Indeed because of the dynamic relationship between colours, both through optical mixture and through induced colour, we see much more than the artist has put onto the canvas and, too, what we see is dynamic, not fixed. The constant alternation of close toned colours is quite dazzling. It has the maximum effect on the eye. It stimulates the effect of film colour, colour which we perceive as separate from the surface that provides our experience of it. This is of course spatial in effect. The position of the surface becomes uncertain, but in the E-Cyclorama that uncertainty is compounded by the further spatial ambiguity created by the interplay between the colour and the oval shape.
Colour focuses precisely the point where knowledge and intuition become indivisible; where we have to acknowledge that, however much we pretend detachment, objective and subjective experience are ultimately the same. Like music, too, it can have a direct emotional impact. Indeed, colour is the most complicated part of visual perception and raises some of most fundamental questions about perception in general. Sanford Wurmfeld then goes further still, however. As we have seen, he shows us that our perception of space too is not simple and is also capable of manipulation as a result of the play of colour. But neither this, nor his manipulation of our colour perceptions is just a game, a clever trick by the artist. If it was it would hardly repay the huge effort involved in painting the eight hundred square feet of each of the cycloramas. This is no mere frisson of the eye. Rather it takes us to the heart of the business of perception and the way painting has evolved around the puzzles of how we see and know; but how, too, somehow our aesthetic sense, our sense of beauty and wonder at the visible world around us is entangled within the complicated and uncertain business of the way we perceive it. This first became the business of painting in Holland in the seventeenth century when art in alliance with science set about the task of understanding the world as we perceive it. The original panorama was part of that continuing enterprise. But greater minds than Barker’s were engaged on it long before him and they soon realised it was not simple and from that recognition grew ultimately all the complexities of modern art.
Painters in Rembrandt's circle and later also in Delft were exploring ways of organising their painting according to the actual shape and behaviour of vision as experienced from the viewpoint of an individual observer. It was a parallel enterprise to that of empirical science, or perhaps more accurately it was a branch of the same enterprise, but as the painters explored the appearance of things, they found that what they had supposed were certainties were perhaps not so certain. Thus they began to question the apparent simplicity of the ambition of empirical description. You see this in Rembrandt's self-portraits. In them subject and object are as plainly indivisible as they are in Monet's Water-Lilies. Rembrandt already seems to ask: “If, as I look at myself, the subject is indivisible from the object, how is objectivity possible?"
So, whatever we think may be the case, in a sense we are always in the picture. Nevertheless the traditional rectangular support of a painting contests that fact. It makes us see the picture either as an object in our immediate reality, or as a window onto an imagined, but still objective equivalent reality. By adopting the cyclorama form, however, Wurmfeld breaks with those constraints intended to preserve the supposition of objectivity to give us instead a directly subjective experience. Thus the artist takes us straight to the heart of the empirical conundrum from which modern art has sprung: Hume’s recognition, following on Rembrandt’s, that our attempt to separate subject and object in our perceptions is ultimately doomed to fail. This was, as we shall see later in this essay, a crucial point in the evolution of modern epistemics. Painting reflected that evolution very closely. Hitherto the panorama has been looked at principally as a branch of popular entertainment with only a tangential bearing on the mainstream of the history of art. Thanks to Sanford Wurmfeld’s revival of the form, we can now see how the panorama as a very particular form of painting played a more important part in its evolution than has been recognised hitherto.
Wurmfeld is not alone, however. Monet clearly understood the potential of the panorama form in exploring the nature of perception and, crucially, the overlap between what is seen and what is felt, for one of the consequences of this whole extended meditation on the psychological nature of perception was the recognition that simple perception can carry, indivisibly, an emotional charge. Poetry is part of it. When Monet first extended his paintings of water-lilies laterally and then away from the flat canvas altogether, he was deliberately surrounding the spectator with his painting. Monet actually planned a panorama, a continuous circular display, for his Water-lilies. He even designed a building for them, though in the end his ambition was not realised in his lifetime and when the paintings were finally installed in a building designed to accommodate them, it was in two oval spaces. The arrangement of the canvasses there is discontinuous, however; although they surround you, you see them individually; and the choice of the oval also seems to have been more an architectural convenience than a radical variation on the conventional panorama form.
The appeal to Monet of the panorama, however, and the quality it has that has now been exploited with such success by Wurmfeld in both his cycloramas, was that, in appearance at least, in its arrangement all the intermediate formalities that fix our relationship to a painting as an objective one, and which had become conventional, were abandoned: the frame, vanishing-point perspective, the surface even, if it is considered as both transparent and a barrier, bearing in mind the way the panorama was set up without a foreground in order to disguise the distance of the painting from the viewer; all the things that had for centuries been used to make the picture seem a self-contained, autonomous and separately organised experience, whose coherence was somehow independent of the observer, were gone.
Jackson Pollock was the heir to Monet in this and for all its formality, the scale and immediacy of impact of the cyclorama show Wurmfeld is still working in that tradition. Like Monet and Pollock, too, the panorama form --- and thence the cyclorama --- is closer to oriental scroll painting than to the Western convention of the framed picture and at that point its connection to some of the most fundamental concerns of modern painting perhaps becomes more apparent. The scroll is a fluid form. It has no fixed plane and, particularly in horizontal scrolls, pictorial space and real space are not strictly differentiated. The boundaries between us and the painting are smoothed over, not accentuated; a fluid relationship, a blending even, is proposed between the subject — the spectator — and the object — the painting. Whistler exploited some of these qualities, borrowed from Japanese examples, in his painting implicitly to challenge the Western dualism on which conventional empiricism is posited; object-subject. God-man, body-soul, mind-body, figure-ground. Though long before Whistler, Hume had already demonstrated it was a fallacy, this dualism still takes many forms. Its pervasiveness has shaped our attitude to nature as essentially 'other' and for centuries it was mirrored in our art.
Well aware of Whistler's concerns, the opportunity it offered to break with the constraint of this dualism was also part of the appeal of the form of the panorama to Monet. In his Water-lily paintings where he abandons conventional pictorial form he quite literally immerses us in the picture. The surface of the water and the plane of the picture seem to be one. The subject/object barrier is dissolved. We do not look at the pictures. We are enfolded by them. The Panorama offered a form of painting that could take that process even further by removing the lateral boundaries and making the spectator's experience and the space in the painting coterminous. As Monet constructed his pictures as wide horizontals mounted on a curve, this lateral boundary was the last remaining conventional feature of painting in them that would locate them as art and so as something apart and separate from the broad field of our experience. Remove it and instead there is only the horizon, which is unlimited, and the spectator at the centre of the circle it defines. Indeed the circle of the painting exactly mimics the circle of the horizon that bounds our experience.
Thus it was that, long before Monet, Barker put the spectator at the centre of the picture. The painting which surrounds him or her is experienced directly. Implicitly this arrangement already abandons the conventional posture of objectivity, the separation of the viewer from the thing viewed into subject, the observer, and object, the observed. With traditional painting, you are outside a picture looking at it or into it. With the panorama you were for the first time truly inside the picture, though the Baroque decorative painters had aspired to a similar effect and indeed, as we have seen, it was partly their work which originally stimulated Sanford Wurmfeld's curiosity about this form of painting.
Offering us pure subjective experience, unmediated by the usual conventions of painting, it might be said that Barker also abandoned ideas in the sense that they had been central to all art theory since the Renaissance. They denoted the mental part in a picture, what the artist puts into it. They were what gave it the claim to be art, something made and given intelligible form and independent existence by the artist. The whole claim of art to be more than a mere craft rested on this premise. Bellori’s essay, The Idea, (first delivered as a lecture to the Academy of St Luke in Rome in 1664) was one of the central texts of academic art theory. In contrast, the Panorama appeared to present raw, unedited experience which was only to be made coherent by the spectator who stands subjectively at its centre, as we all do, each within the circle of our own unique horizon. This was all highly topical. The whole status of ideas in cognition was the hot debate in contemporary philosophy; and you have to remember at this point that in Scotland in the eighteenth century philosophy was not an obscure academic pursuit. It was a shared social concern, the stuff of ordinary conversation.
In Scotland, Thomas Reid, by his theory of intuition, the idea that we perceive directly by the physiological interaction of our minds with the world around us, his philosophy of common sense as it is called, had removed the idea from the place it had occupied in the theory of perception more or less since Plato. Hume had followed Locke in this, although for Hume the penetrating clarity of his intellect meant he had also to recognise that if ideas mediate between us and our perceptions of the external world, then they are all we can know and our knowledge of the world behind them is at best presumptive.
Hume developed his observations on the nature of experience into a sceptical empirical philosophy that was to shape modern thinking in a way that reached far beyond philosophy itself and is still relevant to this discussion of the E-Cyclorama. At the heart of this was the recognition that all perception is coloured by psychology; and that word 'coloured' in this context says a great deal. It is a usage that implicitly recognises the psychological power of colour, its ability to supervene, to change the basic character of things and shape our responses to them. While it is capable of scientific or objective analysis, and a great deal of effort has been expended on that study, that is only true up to a point. It is also irredeemably psychological. Our subjective experience of it can be indeed be ‘coloured’ by intense feeling and our response to colour can be akin to our response to music. Our judgement can only ever be intuitive, but, Wurmfeld suggests by his use of the oval form, even our spatial awareness, though it seems to be formed from measurable geometry, is, equally, no better than provisional, psychological even.
Thomas Reid added physiology to psychology. Thus he focussed the dilemma that we touch on here. Reid argued that all perception is intuitive. It is the result of our reading, as it were, the sensations that we receive from the outside world directly through our senses without any intervening ideas. Crucially however he also argued that these sensations are themselves meaningless. They only become coherent by our reading of them. In a passage which had far-reaching consequences for the development of painting, he went on to use the practice of the painter to illustrate what he meant:
I cannot therefore entertain the hope of being intelligible to readers who have not by... practice acquired the habit of distinguishing the appearance of objects to the eye from the judgement that we form of their colour, distance, magnitude and figure. The only profession in life wherein it is necessary to make that distinction is painting. The painter hath occasion for an abstraction with regard to visible objects somewhat similar to that which we here require; and this indeed is the most difficult part of his an. For it is evident if he could fix the visible appearance of objects without confounding it with the thing signified by that appearance, it would be as easy for him to paint from the life ... as it is to paint from a copy.2
Reid takes us straight to the E-Cyclorama, for here he argues that the painter's business is only with the signs, with the retinal signals, the undifferentiated matter of perception, and that in painting the drama takes place in the eye of the spectator, not on the canvas. To create this effect, the painter must forget what he or she understands from their perceptions and record only their unedited sensations. The spectator will then read meaning --- perception --- from those mimicked sensations. To separate the sign from the signified seems very much a twentieth century ambition, but here we have Thomas Reid proposing it as the basis of the art of painting in the middle of the eighteenth century. It is of course exactly what Wurmfeld does in his painting. In the E-Cyclorama there are, more or less, one hundred and eighty four thousand signs or individual coloured marks. In the Cyclorama 2000, though the overall dimensions are the same, the marks are smaller and so there are actually two hundred and seventy thousand of them, but what they signify in both paintings is an experience that is literally detached from the constituent marks and takes place dynamically in the eye of the beholder.
As Reid argued that we know the world directly through some mysterious physical, indeed physiological exchange that allows us to interact with it intuitively, the unruly behaviour of colour in our perception of it confirms his view. Colour is not an idea, but a physical fact to which we have a physical response in the retina and optic nerve. That physical response then generates a psychological response. Colour is the paradigm of empirical epistemics.
The first response to these radical ideas is seen in the painting of Raeburn. Raeburn painted Reid’s portrait and was a close friend of Dugald Stewart, his pupil and principal interpreter. This is not the place to discuss it at length and I have dealt with it elsewhere, but it is clear that Raeburn’s art was shaped by the idea that the painter should record what his eye sees, not what his brain understands. The spectator will make coherent what is apparently incoherent on his canvas, exactly as they do in the ordinary processes of perception. If Raeburn was doing this in Edinburgh in the last decade of the eighteenth century, it is surely no coincidence that at exactly the same time and in the same place Barker should do something whose implications at least are so similar: a kind of painting whose coherence depended so clearly on the subjective eye of the beholder, not on the armature of a given idea.
If this kind of discussion was the hot topic in Edinburgh in the late eighteenth century, so it was to become in France in the nineteenth. The links between France and Scotland during the Enlightenment were very close. Reid’s ideas in particular became topical in France in the Restoration years. Delacroix was engaged with them. In Balzac’s short story, the Chef-d’Ouevre Inconnu, when the long awaited masterpiece is finally revealed, it is no more than a lot of meaningless blobs just as Reid describes the raw material of perception as the painter should set it down on his canvas. Balzac clearly had in mind the implications of what happens to painting if ideas are removed and, with them, all given structure: when nothing is put down by the painter except the incoherent matter of unedited experience.
Reid says a great deal more about perception that was explicitly relevant to painting. His arguments passed into the history of art and indeed may have shaped it. Delacroix studied Reid's philosophy sitting at the feet of the philosopher Victor Cousin, a champion of Scottish philosophy in France, and through Cousin Reid's books became required reading for the Baccalaureate in France for the generation of the Impressionists. It is also very striking therefore that it is with Delacroix that it is usually considered that the discussion of the role of retinal colour in painting first enters the history of art. Michel Eugène Chevreul, who embarked on his influential investigations into the way we see colour as director of the Gobelins Tapestry Works at much the same time, is usually credited with playing a key role in starting that debate, but Reid's theory of perception was a necessary precondition for its relevance to painting. If painting is concerned with the retinal impression, then colour and how we see it is immediately a crucial part of it, and for Reid the mutability of colour was already one of its principal and most puzzling characteristics. But once the debate was started, Chevreul's analysis in particular did prove invaluable to painters as a way of solving the problem of what it was that they were trying to describe. By the time of the Impressionists in the 1860s, Reid's ideas of perception and Chevreul's analysis of colour were part of the general debate and were there to set a new agenda for painting.
Before Chevreul and even before Reid the study of colour and the attempt to understand and codify it had occupied a great many fine minds. Isaac Newton began it by formulating a scientific theory of colour that was based on his empirical observation that white light splits to create the prismatic colours. So he concluded white is not the absence of colour, but its sum. This was to remain pretty much the standard account for more than a century. As a branch of the study of perception, research into the nature of colour was a major preoccupation in Edinburgh. It was there that the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell began his investigation of colour which, though it was a minor part of the revolution in physics that he eventually brought about, proved an enduring contribution to the subject. It was Maxwell who provided the basic observation that all colours can be produced by just three colours of light. (He also produced the first colour photograph exploring that observation.) He also made the basic observation used now by Sanford Wurmfeld in the Cyclorama that the variables in colour are accounted for by just three qualities, hue, which is the saturated colour itself, and tint and shade, its graduation respectively towards light and dark.
The rainbow of course is the epitome of colour and it is a geometric form. Inspired no doubt by that, from Newton onwards the leading ambition of the many individuals who studied colour was to produce a geometric configuration that would allow colour to be described geometrically by two or more coordinates, and thence algebraically. To achieve this almost every simple geometric figure was tried in two and three dimensions. There were colour circles, cones, squares and triangles. Many of these schemes for the codification of colour produced extremely beautiful diagrammatic representations. Indeed it might appear that these should qualify as some of the earliest productions of abstract art though the intention was very different. They belong in the tradition of art as information and are a product of the partnership of art and science.
Already in the eighteenth century, Thomas Burnett argued that our sensation of colour was akin to moral sense, intuitive therefore and pre-rational. Later in the century Goethe produced his celebrated study of the psychological value of colour. His views were both the polar opposite of Newton's scientific account of colour and its complement. And that is the crux of the matter. Colour illustrates almost more than any other phenomenon the paradox at the heart of empiricism: that our division between art and science, between the scientific and the aesthetic, between the thing experienced and the person experiencing it, is artificial and ultimately misleading. This is a paradox which painters recognised and tried to deal with from an early date, even though scientists have had to ignore it. Notably since Clerk Maxwell, that posture in science has become less and less tenable.
Wurmfeld's two cycloramas take their iconography from this tradition of colour geometry and so by two different routes are descended from the interest in optics and visualisation of the Enlightenment, but they also combine them in a quite novel way. Ironically, the very beauty of the scientific colour images that the iconography of the cycloramas resembles is a reflection of the difficulty of creating a truly abstract, theoretical account of colour. For in spite of all these efforts colour refused to be pinned down. It is too human to be abstract and is indivisibly both a scientific and an aesthetic phenomenon. To experience it can involve feeling as much as it does scientific observation; or indeed, defying any claim to empirical objectivity, it inextricably compounds feeling and observation. Some of our responses to colour seem to be quite atavistic, stubbornly rooted in our non-rational being. In the E-Cyclorama, by using the oval plan, not only does Wurmfeld reinforce this effect, he takes it further to demonstrate how our perceptions of space too are relative and psychological; but perhaps too for the very reason that our perceptions do have this relative, psychological character, how our experience of the beauty of the world around us and above all the joy we take from our experience of light and colour in the sky are a response inseparable from the way we perceive these things. We are by our natures emotionally engaged with them. We experience them subjectively and cannot be detached from them. Monet of course knew this. So did Turner, but it is enormously refreshing to see that it is still valid, that an artist can still explore this kind of thing and find new things to say on a topic so central to understanding what makes us human.
The discussions about the nature of perception that started in the empirical philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment certainly played a part in the development of Impressionism. These ideas were developed, too, by the Post-Impressionists. Cézanne offers a vision that balances and somehow reconciles the certainty of our common sense understanding of the world with the uncertainty and mutability of our perceptions of it. He was also a great colourist. Working intuitively, he began to use colour in an active way, that is to create an effect in the eye of the beholder that was more than anything that could be achieved by description alone. He constantly uses changes in hue while maintaining tonal continuity as a way of creating for the spectator a vivid sense that what they are looking at is somehow dynamic, not passive: that they are not simply looking at an inert picture, but actively sharing a subjective experience with the artist.
Perhaps no one came closer to a direct translation of Reid’s theory of perception into visual form, however, than Seurat. Closely followed by Signac, he set out to create a formal, analytical language of colour. He broke the image down into a purely abstract pattern of dots. They are anonymous, identical marks. Individually meaningless, the pattern they make on the canvas mimics the pattern of coloured light falling on the retina. The marks carry no other shaping idea. Indeed this way of painting is in Reid’s word literally ‘an abstraction’. It was intended to reflect scientifically the way we actually experience colour and through colour, the world around us. The colours thus separated, when reconstructed in the eye, would mimic the original experience exactly as Reid described.
The legacy of the Neo-Impressionists, particularly through Signac after Seurat's early death, was far-reaching. He played a key role in the evolution of Fauvism, for instance, and so the whole subject of colour passed into the evolution of Modernism. It was at the Bauhaus in particular that this discussion was extended into theory. Kandinsky devoted a great deal of energy to trying to understand and codify the psychological value of colour. After Matisse, it was perhaps Paul Klee who realised most fully in his art its mysterious poetic power freed from any overt subject matter. Then from Klee and Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, it was just a short step to the art and writings of Joseph Albers, an émigré from there to the US, and whose work had a profound formative influence on Sanford Wurmfeld. The method adopted now in the composition of the E-Cyclorama is still a variation of Seurat’s Divisionism.
Wurmfeld's E-Cyclorama belongs in the critical area of debate from which modern art evolved, debate about the nature of empiricism and about its key limitation, indeed the paradox at its heart: the way the empirical approach proposes, but ultimately cannot maintain, the objectification of the perceived world. It does far more than that, too, however, for it is very beautiful and its beauty and our response to it are a vivid demonstration of the central fact of that paradox: how perception and feeling are inseparably linked. Writing about Wurmfeld’s Cyclorama 2000 I compared it to the first major picture that Miró painted after the war. It was for a restaurant in Cincinnati and is now in the Cincinnati Museum. This is what I wrote:
It is a semicircular picture, 30 feet long by 8 feet deep, a half-panorama in fact. With Miró's intricate, Surrealist imagery, however, in spite of its shape, you might not think such a painting could be in any way comparable to Sanford Wurmfeld's Cyclorama, but Miró's half-circle was a rainbow. It was even sited in a glass walled room at the top of a very tall building, in the sky in fact. In a notebook written during the war when he was in exile in Majorca and could only imagine painting such a picture, Miró was explicit and wrote of how he would use points of pure colour around the drawn image so that the painting would 'have the iridescence of the rainbow'. There he chose the word which exactly describes the effect of the Cyclorama. It derives from the name of Iris, goddess of the rainbow. In French the word 'irisation' is even closer. Then Miró made a further note to himself about his planned paintings — for who else did he imagine would ever read his notebooks? "Think of these canvasses as magical decorations for the walls of a poet's house, a house at the bottom of a lake." 5
The last marvellous part of his image invokes a mysterious, poetic world, lit by shifting, subaqueous light. It takes us out of this mundane world into one transfigured by the artist's imagination. That is surely how we should think of the E-Cyclorama too. For in the end it is the poetry, the magic of this remarkable painting that will be remembered.3
The E-Cyclorama is every bit as poetic as Wurmfeld’s Cyclorama 2000. It is another marvellous decoration for the walls of that poet’s house at the bottom of a lake. But, if with Cyclorama 2000 it is as though you are standing at the heart of the rainbow, now you are standing between the rising sun and the deep blue darkness of the departing night. The sky between is pearly grey. In late pictures like the Angel Standing in the Sun, or the Morning after the Deluge, Turner painted a column of light whose intensity seems to break out of the constraint of the square that frames it. He also contrasts the golden light in the Morning After the Deluge with the sombre blue of its companion and pendant, The Evening Before the Deluge, just as Sanford Wurmfeld contrasts the two poles of his painted oval. Turner also prefixed the titles of his two pictures respectively ‘Light and Colour’ and ‘Shade and Darkness’ and then added in brackets to both ‘Goethe’s Theory’. Thus he referred the effect of his pictures to Goethe’s theory of the psychological effect of colour. There is some evidence that Turner may at one time have thought of painting a panorama. As a young man he was friendly with Henry Aston Barker, Robert Barker’s son and collaborator. Another close friend Thomas Girtin painted a major panorama of London. If Turner had painted his own panorama, perhaps it might have looked a little like the E-Cyclorama: a celebration of the drama of light in colour.
1 My own interest in the panorama was first stimulated by the pioneering research of Scott Wilcox (M Lit, Edinburgh 1976) published in summary in Panoramania! ed. Ralph Hyde, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1988. Since them the study of the subject has developed greatly and the literature has become extensive.
2 Thomas Reid, Inquiry into the human mind, The Works of Thomas Reid, ed. Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh 1843), 2 volumes, 1pp135-137.
3 In Painting in Scotland: the Golden Age, (Oxford 1986) pp 77-80 and p. 129.
4 In Sanford Wurmfeld, Cyclorama, Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, 2004.
5 . "Autour du dessin mettre des points avec des couleurs pures que le fond rappel l'irisation de l'arc en ciel ...considèrer ces toiles commes des decorations magiques sur les murs de la maison d'un poète, maison aufond d'un lac.' Miró, Carnets Catalans, ed. Gaeton Picon, translated by Georges Raillard, 2 vols. (Geneva 1976) 2,15