My week in wonderful Wrocław was crowned with a visit to the Racławice Panorama. As a lover and historian of silent cinema and early cinematic technologies, and devotee of late 19th century modernity, I was understandably excited to be visiting Wrocław as home to one of Europe’s few surviving panoramas. Years ago, I visited the a panorama in Stockholm, but Wroclaw’s very own representation of the battle of Racławice is bigger, more dramatic, and provocative thanks to its subject matter and the chequered history of the painting.
The panorama was painted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Racławice, 4 April 1794, telling the story of the famous Kościuszko Insurrection. That the Insurrection was ultimately a failure didn’t deter the Poles from holding the battle itself as an iconic memory of Polish Independence. The painting was originally displayed in what was then Lviv—now Lvov, a city on the Polish border now in the Ukraine—a town I know as the location of some of the most horrendous World War II crimes. When it was in Lviv, the painting drew visitors from far and wide. Then, with the redrawing of Poland’s borders, the panorama was moved to Wrocław after the war. With Polish peasants vanquishing the Russian army in the Battle of Racławice, it’s no wonder that during the Cold War, there was sustained opposition to its renovation and public display in Poland.
|Merging of reality and representation|
What’s really extraordinary about this panoramic representation is its form as a 19th century mass-cultural representation of history. The 360 degree representation of different moments in the battle is executed and displayed to ensure that the visitor is always placed at the centre of the space within the depiction. In turn, this illusory space gradually merges with our reality. The painted image extends simultaneously into a series of receding perspectives to hills in a distant background, and into real rocks, dirt strewn with swords, fallen carriages and broken trees before us. Thus, because the line between reality and representation is so successfully blurred, we are immersed in an environment that is truly disorienting. The lighting is also expertly crafted to give a disconcerting continuity, but also to give the impression that we are outside, under the luminous sky of the painting. Still today, it is as convincing an immersive experience as any 3D movie. It’s not difficult to imagine how a 19th century visitor would have been in awe of the experience on a Sunday afternoon visit to the panorama.
Lastly, the depiction of the violent and bloody battle is impressive for its merciless depiction of the Russians, and the heroism of the peasants and the other forces of insurrection. With scythes raised and the full force of a charge in motion, the energy and excitement of the vanquisher would have made visitors proud of their nation. At the same time, the painting is more than competent; the slaughter reminded me of Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. The same clouds of smoke, bloody insurrection, and guns, scythes in the air, enjoys a realism that is completely in the service of the drama of the battle.