DIORAMA: INVENTING ILLUSION at The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

OCTOBER 6, 2017 – JANUARY 21, 2018


Richard Barnes, Single Ungulate and Man Amidst Crosses, 2008

Richard Barnes, Single Ungulate and Man Amidst Crosses, 2008

The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt presents a major exhibition dedicated to the cultural history of vision. It focuses on the diorama, which is used to reconstruct and realistically stage events, stories, and habitats with the aid of various means. Invented in the nineteenth century by the French painter and photography pioneer Louis Daguerre as a playhouse enlivened with light effects, it, as a glass showcase became the presentation form par excellence for natural history museums. The diorama stages human knowledge of the world, not without influencing and perpetually challenging the viewer’s perception. Being the first comprehensive examination of the diorama, the exhibition highlights both the various stories behind the development of this form of presentation and the correlations and chronological developments that took place parallel to it.

The diorama has been a crucial source of inspiration to this day: numerous artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries address questions of staged vision in their works by questioning and dissolving the illusion of a reconstructed reality. The exhibition at the Schirn presents the early forms of the diorama in religious art and its beginnings in the playhouse and showman art of the nineteenth century, and considers the diorama as the preferred form of presentation for museums conveying natural-historical and anthropological knowledge. The deconstruction of the diorama in today’s art is illustrated by large scale installations, contemporary dioramas, sculptures, photographs, and films by such artists as Richard Barnes, Richard Baquié, Diane Fox, Mark Dion, Isa Genzken, Robert Gober, Mathieu Mercier, Kent Monkman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Jeff Wall. The presentation develops an overall chronological narrative that traces the cultural history of vision and of exhibiting from various perspectives. 

“Although the diorama embodies the age-old staging of ‘watching,’ it still forms a blind spot in our cultural history. The exhibition is the first broad-based examination of this topic and attempts to link up the various strands of the diorama’s origin. An exhibition about the diorama is also an exhibition about exhibiting. Each attempt to tell its story leads to the beginnings of exhibitions in the context of the first mass amusements and visual inventions. Contemporary artists consider the diorama to be a conceptual installation and an opportunity to deconstruct the visual techniques passed down from the nineteenth century–and thus a suitable means for doing justice to the expressive power of sculptural elements,” explain the curators of the exhibition, Katharina Dohm, Claire Garnier, Laurent Le Bon, and Florence Ostende.

The exhibition was organized by the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt in collaboration with the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, where it was conceived and first presented. A catalogue will accompany the exhibition.

The full press release can be read here. Additional text on the exhibition is featured in SchirnMag.