The Leipzig Panometer and the Use of Historical Art

by Frederick Turner

 This winter I visited the German city of Leipzig in Saxony, and saw there the truly remarkable panorama of the Battle of the Nations, which was waged in and around Leipzig over three days in October 1813, and which marked Napoleon’s first decisive defeat. The panorama is housed in the huge shell of a disused telescoping gasometer, a landmark of the East German era. The fabric image displayed inside it (actually a seamless collage of geometrically distorted photographs) is the largest of its kind in the world, about 344 feet in circumference and 100 feet high, and is viewed within from a three-story tower. It is known as the Panometer, a name that has stuck since it was unveiled in 2003. The Iranian-Austrian artist, Yadegar Asisi (b. 1955), has created several panoramas, but this is the largest and perhaps his masterpiece. As well as offering a spectacular and very beautiful visual experience, quite unlike any other artistic medium, it is also a profound statement about historical art that speaks importantly to our times.

Observation area, Battle of the Nations, October 1813, Leipzig Panometer, Leipzig, Germany
The Panometer’s context alone is significant. Leipzig’s Thomaskirche was Bach’s headquarters and still houses his exquisite choir, the Thomanerchor. The Nikolaikirche is where the successful series of revolutions against Soviet domination began in 1989. Completed in 1913, the city’s colossal monument to the Battle of the Nations, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, is perhaps the most gigantic war memorial in the world. And Leipzig’s fine municipal museum, the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, has an astonishingly honest exhibition about the horrors of the Nazi era. Located nearby, the Panometer forces us, in a deeper way, to face the awkward and sometimes dark relationship between art and reality.

Battle of Nations Monument, Leipzig, Germany

Nietzsche and Now

Perhaps we should consult an expert on the subject. One of Leipzig’s former residents was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). His birth city, Röcken, is only a day’s walk away; he studied at the University of Leipzig under the philologist Friedrich Ritschl, and was introduced there to the music of Richard Wagner (another Leipzig alumnus) by the drunken poet Ernst Öttlep. In his remarkable essay The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche asks one of those questions whose importance is obvious only once it is asked: what is the use of history? His answer, complex though it is, is that history is very useful indeed, even dangerously so.

Nietzsche divides history into three types: monumental, antiquarian and critical. Monumental history, he says, is useful as an example for conduct, inspiration and challenge to emulation. Antiquarian history gives us a dwelling place in time, provides an identity for our city and instills an understanding of our inheritance. Critical history tells us where we went wrong, confronts us with the world-shattering implications of realizing that our foundations are false, and gives us a springboard whence we can leap out of our conventional wisdom and easy piety. Nietzsche was well aware that monumental history can give rise to slavish deference to a past we cannot emulate, that antiquarian history can lead to a conservatism, through which, he says, “the tree dies unnaturally, from the top downward, and at last the roots themselves wither,” and that critical history may turn us into sterile ironists and destroy our life-affirming piety altogether. These dangers only make the question “what’s the use of history?” more pressing, since it is only by asking it that the dangers are revealed.

The question gathers even more importance, especially for art lovers, when it is narrowed: what is the use of historical art? Historical art was obviously so important to millennia of European artists and philosophers (and centuries of American ones) that history painting once shared with mythological and religious painting the position of the highest of the arts. It is almost impossible to name a major artist before the middle of the nineteenth century who did not leave us works depicting historical events and scenes that brought their ancestors to life. Greek and Roman painters depicted ancient and classical subjects; medieval and Renaissance artists illustrated sacred and secular history; Enlightenment and Romantic artists, even more earnestly perhaps and with better scholarship, provided us with visual time-machines through which viewers engage in the moral, intellectual and spiritual struggles of the people who made our world. 

Nietzsche’s tripartite classification of history works very well for history painting, and helps clarify the genre as a whole. Apelles’ Alexander, Raphael’s Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila, Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda, David’s Oath of the Horatii, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, West’s Death of General Wolfe, Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware and Ilya Repin’s Reply of the Zaporozian Cossacks are plainly monumental. The dangers of this mode are amply illustrated by its service to the great totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, but as we shall see, its virtues have been woefully obscured for more than a hundred years. Antiquarian history painting is well represented by artists as varied as Claude Lorrain, Rembrandt, Géricault, Bouguereau, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Hudson RiverSchool and Sir John Gilbert (the illustrator of Walter Scott). Critical history painting is exemplified by Breughel’s Tower of Babel, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, Goya’s searing depictions of the Napoleonic war in Spain and Picasso’s Guernica.

But Guernica, a history painting of the twentieth century, is very much an exception. In 2005,  Paul Barlow published a very important essay entitled “The Death of History Painting in Nineteenth-Century Art” (Visual Culture in Britain, 6:1), in which he pointed out the almost complete eclipse of historical art as a legitimate genre, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century. In France, avant-garde artists condemned history painting as “l’art pompier”—art for firemen. Illustration became as despised a word in art as the term “program music” is in music. History painting, once queen of the arts, became the medium for postage stamp artists, children’s history books and movie set designers. In the 1930s, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had to import Diego Rivera from Mexico to paint United States history, and famously did not like what he got.

In America today, there are a handful of historical artists who have “come out” publicly and shamelessly as such, like Dan Nance, but they are studiously ignored by the fashionable art press. The only area where history painting gets a fair viewing by this cognoscenti is Black History, and I believe the very fact that an exception is made for it is itself a kind of liberal condescension. Artists of the Old West do not get such a pass. Religious artists like John Cobb, who sets biblical scenes in modern dress, are tolerated because they can be seen as sociologically relevant. The Los Angeles figurative artists Wes Christensen and Domenic Cretara paint the occasional historical scene, but must publish them in a whisper, so to speak. The important artist James McElhinney paints historical landscapes, but does not paint the events that happened there to make them historic. 

Guards, interior, Battle of Nations Monument, Leipzig, Germany. So what did we lose when we abandoned history painting? Those who cannot learn from history, as Santayana predicted, are doomed to repeat it. It is often rightly said that art should explore new strange territory; the strangest territory, the most new to history-challenged audiences, is our own past. No foreign culture is as deeply alien to our present sensibility as our own just two hundred years earlier. When, for example, Mendelssohn unearthed the works of Bach from the previous century, they struck the musical sensibilities of Europe with a surprising force, as if they were a message from an alien race. Consider the effect of classical Roman architecture and Greek sculpture over a thousand years later during the Renaissance. The past is often our undiscovered country, our realm of mystery and insight.

Discoveries in Leipzig

It is this feeling that one experiences when swallowed up in the vast womb of Leipzig’s Panometer, in the early dawn of October 19, 1813. The sad night songs of the soldiers around their campfires—French, Russian, Saxon, Swedish, Prussian, Austrian—have died away; it is a cloudy morning, but the sun above the clouds is beginning to light the bell tower of the Thomaskirche and the shattered rooftops of the Platz below. The horizon toward the south, where Napoleon’s Imperial Guard had fought the Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, is lit by burning villages under plumes of smoke. Suddenly, there is a huge explosion, perhaps a bridge being blown up, and now the morning light reveals the streets below, crammed with Napoleon’s huge supply wagons, shattered regiments of the Grande Armée, dead horses and improvised field hospitals for the wounded. And is that mounted rider the emperor himself, in retreat from his command post, dressed in a grey greatcoat with his head bowed?

Street scene, Battle of the Nations, October 1813, Leipzig Panometer, Leipzig, Germany

No movie has the same effect of total immersion—partly because one can walk about the platform, as one might on a real church tower, partly because one is completely surrounded, partly because of brilliantly organized trompe l’oeil, perspective and lighting effects, and partly because the spectacle is so huge that the binocular vision of the eyes can no longer gauge the distance and assumes that the objects it sees really are hundreds or thousands of meters away, rather than only thirty or so.

One is drawn into an entirely different world of values—of martial honor, horrifying suffering, casual amputations, civic chaos, patriotism, aristocratic and republican virtue, an aesthetic vision of life, death and war. These are people whose life expectancy, even without war, was only half of ours, people who really did believe that they would go to heaven or hell when they died, who saw impenetrable supernatural forces at work in events, who were unashamedly striving for control of the world’s future and for the glory of domination. This was the world’s biggest battle before World War I, with the largest number of combatants (half a million, including units from twenty nations and even Tartars, Kalmuks and Bashkirs brought by the Russians) and 100,000 casualties. Indeed, research into the scope of the Napoleonic war reveals that—through colonial and supply route contests and related conflicts such as the War of 1812—it involved regions as far apart as the West and East Indies, South Asia and the Americas. This was, in fact, World War I, and the events of 1939–45 were actually World War III.

Leipzig was, then, the setting of Europe’s first encounter with the great and terrible dream of a populist utopian post-national unification, necessarily totalitarian and necessarily dictated by a single charismatic genius. Europe was to encounter that dream twice more when it met the Third Reich and the Soviet empire in World War II and the Cold War.  Leipzig, the Saxon city of music, trade, education, civic pride and the gentle arts of bourgeois civilization, was perhaps the appropriate place for Europe’s first rejection of the totalizing dream. Indeed, the turning point of the battle, when the scales began to turn decisively against Bonaparte, was the defection of his 5,000 Saxon troops, triggering other defections from the Confederation of the Rhine. Thus, in the panorama, we see Saxon partisans nailing the Saxon flag to a steeple. This was a battle of ideas, of internal moral decisions, as well as of artillery and gallant cavalry charges.

How such history art is managed and presented is not just a matter of verisimilitude. Nietzsche’s classification can perhaps guide us in seeking answers to the question: what constitutes responsible history art? The Leipzig city museum gives us good examples of two of Nietzsche’s history types; the Völkerschlachtdenkmal is perhaps the most striking example of the third.

Stadtgeschichtliches Museum, Leipzig
TheStadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig is centered on the city’s great assembly hall, lined by what appears to be a complete portrait record of its leaders from its medieval founding to the twentieth century. Many of the portraits are splendid works of respectful psychological observation in their own right. This room’s furniture, its magnificent painted ceilings and carved paneling summon up the vision of a relatively independent and responsible civic life. On the same floor are examples of the crafts and fine products of the city, information about its history and relics of its prominent citizens, such as Bach, the liberal poet Friedrich Schiller and the literary and scientific geniuses who studied or taught at the university (including my own favorite, Goethe). This is antiquarian history at its best; Leipzigers love their museum and use it as a feature of their Christmas and other annual celebrations. It helps tell them who they are as Saxons and as citizens.

One floor above is a very different kind of history. This installation is centered on the industrial, political and social upheavals of the twentieth century, on the rise of heroic nationalism, militarism, mass ideology and economic boom and collapse. It zeroes in with relentless frankness on the Holocaust and its enthusiastic supporters in the population. It goes on to depict the disgusting, shoddy and grandiose informer-state era of Soviet-dominated East Germany, and then the liberation that followed the first protests at the Nikolaikirche, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany. It is, by no means, however, enthusiastic about the era of consumerism that followed. This is critical history, managed well and unflinchingly, but it necessarily leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, even if one is not German. Does its cold realism destroy the sweet homeliness of the floor below? And make us look upon human effort and aspiration with a cynical and exhausted eye? Is our indignation against the evil deeds of respected leaders and law-abiding followers itself the raw material of new abuses? After all, the Communist regime used the horrors of Nazism as a justification for its own.

A little outside the city proper, near where Napoleon set up his bastion against the Allies’ southern assault, stands the Battle of the Nations Memorial, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal. Conceived during the surge of German nationalism that followed the defeat of the French at Sedan in 1870, and inspired by Prussia’s romantic militarism, this was funded by the Association of German Patriots, and completed in 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I. It is sublime, grotesque, and mind-boggling—its scale is strangely inexplicable to the senses. A pyramid 300 feet high and covering more than 400 square feet is made of granite blocks taller than a man, and is surmounted by a ring of colossal warrior sculptures thirty feet high. All of this arouses indescribable feelings and strange temptations. These great brooding warriors in the stylized armor of the Teutonic Knights evoke the myths of Siegfried, Parzifal and Lohengrin, and symbolize the virtues of courage, sacrifice, faith and fertility. Yes, fertility. The knight representing this virtue holds in his arms his son, a well-built boy obviously destined for Spartan training and death in victory. Nietzsche argued that the hero, firmly at the center of his own horizon and untroubled by corrosive irony, is a force of life and would leave behind him a race of heroes. When I visited this place with friends, I quoted Woody Allen’s joke that it made me want to invade Poland. One of us was humming the hero theme from Wagner’s Ring cycle.

It’s a horrible place, in some ways, obscene in its appeal. At the end of World War II, 150 diehard SS youngsters defended this monument against advancing American troops and perished to the last man (or rather boy). Here we see with terrible clarity the dangers of Nietzsche’s monumental history, dangers he himself recognized. Yet must we—or even can we—erase from the human race the desire for glory, the grandeur of self-sacrifice, the spur of contestation? Where would our species have been without the urge to adventure, insouciance in the face of risk, the challenge of arete, of excellence?

Perhaps we do not need to choose. In making us do so, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal is actually a lie. Its conception and style are entirely Germanic, indeed Prussian; thus, as a victory memorial, it implicitly ignores or falsifies the fact that many Germans fought on the side of Bonaparte, and that Russians, Poles, Swedes, Britons and many other nationalities, all with different styles and myths, helped to defeat him. The memorial’s crudity of conception—which indeed gives it much of its unmistakable artistic greatness, like the films of Leni Riefenstahl—makes it available as propaganda for the foulest tyranny. Hitler loved it, of course; what is less well-known is that Stalin loved it, too, and used its grounds for Russo-German friendship games.

The achievement of the Panometer is to somehow include and reconcile the virtues of all three kinds of history, while denying any easy path to their abuses. Nobody could use the Panometer to extol, above all others, the values of one nation. We grieve even for the French, while recognizing the justice of their defeat. The creation of the Panometer involved an international crew and the photographing of hundreds of scenes played by voluntary re-enactors from all over Europe—so it celebrates a continent of ordinary people with different cultural backgrounds. Partly because this monument encloses us like a womb rather than standing phallicly erect, we must turn around to experience it; we choose what we want to look at and how long we do so, free from the cutting decisions of a movie director. We can see all sides of it from one place, we are ourselves imaginatively in a place of risk, and it is harder to be an armchair quarterback or jock-sniffer. As Nietzsche’s theory of antiquarian history requires, the Panometer makes us love Leipzig as a home city, and it does so without agitating us to go on a crusade of Saxon conquest. Still, it is not parochial and narrow. And it meets the demands of critical history, as honestly as the exhibition in the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig. It is absolutely unflinching in its depiction of the obscene brutality, chaos and cruelty of war, and indeed critical of the motivations and deceits of its mongers.

Yet the Panometer is also monumental; it recognizes and celebrates the tragic grandeur of such events, foul though their roots may be, and makes us oddly proud to be human—a pride that is for all of us, not just our own nation or creed or race. It arouses our sense of emulation—to be better human beings.