Saturday, March 07, 2009

Panorama of Scheveningen

Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Segment of the Panorama of Scheveningen, 1881

By 1881 the panorama form was almost a hundred years old. Although many of the panoramas in the latter part of the nineteenth century were executed by relatively well-known Salon artists, such works were far removed from the concerns of cutting edge landscape painters - the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Symbolists. A possible exception was Hendrik Willem Mesdag, whose panorama of the beach and village of Scheveningen I saw on my trip to The Hague recently. Mesdag was a leading Hague School painter and his motivation for agreeing to work in this relatively disreputable format may have been the desire to work on such a large scale in his own speciality – the seascape.’ Petra Halkes (‘The Mesdag Panorama: Sheltering the all-embracing view’, Art History, Vol. 22, No.1, March 1999) suggests that Mesdag’s panorama can be compared to other landscape art produced at this time in that it responded to ‘a need to screen out the shattering forces of industrialisation and enclose a gentle arcadia within an endless universe.’ This view of Scheveningen may function as nostalgia for the ‘all-embracing view’, the panoramic vision of nature that at the time of the earliest panoramas was only just beginning to be challenged by the fragmentation of industrial society and the new visual modes of modernity.

Visiting the panorama now imposes another century's worth of nostalgia. The building has been restored but feels very much like a time capsule: you walk through a short dark corridor and come up a Victorian wooden stairway into the middle of the panorama, surrounded by a frameless view of the Dutch coast. (The absence of a frame is all the more noticeable because as you enter the museum you go past several Mesdag seascapes which sit within heavy, ornate gilt frames.) The realism is initially disconcerting as your eyes become accustomed to seeing the world in through the medium of paint. But after a while some details do start to seem a little odd, for example soldiers on the beach that look rather like toy soldiers (they are just doing some drill, but reminded me that panoramas had long been associated with battle scenes). And to the left of the view shown above, there is a slightly surreal pavilion with statues that reminded me of De Chirico and some goats visible in the grass outside. It's a reminder that the more realistic a landscape, the stranger some of the details may seem.

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