Robert Thorne investigates the nineteenth-century passion for views that has inspired the exhibition about to open at London's Barbican Art Gallery.
Despite films, video and all the other paraphernalia of contemporary image-making our fascination with panoramas refuses to go away. Even the most jaded traveller, for whom the knowledge of what to expect has blunted the thrill of arriving in a strange city, cannot resist the urge to climb the tallest building or the neighbouring hilltop to get a comprehensive view of its streets and layout; and out in the country few people defy the temptation to get as high as possible to secure a view of the surrounding landscape.
The same curiosity that compels people to get to the highest spot in any place kindles an interest in how that experience has been recorded by artists and photographers. Fascination with the all-embracing picture reached such a pitch in the early nineteenth century that it was labelled 'panoramania'. Inspired by the same kind of fervency, the organisers of the Barbican exhibition on the subject have adopted that word as their title, no doubt chiefly because they want to evoke the excitement that panoramas once aroused but also because they detect hopeful signs of a panorama revival. Most visitors to the exhibition will probably be content with the history, admirably presented and meticulously catalogued, and will leave the proselytising alone. Better claims can be made for the wide screen film as the natural successor to the panorama in the present century, and to illustrate that connection the National Film Theatre is organising a concurrent season of cinema classics of that kind.