Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Evening Note for Tuesday, December 8

 Thought for the Evening: The Diorama and Lady Mary Shepherd

Louis Daguerre is most famous for his development of the daguerrotype process of photography, but he is responsible for other interesting innovations in the visual art, one of which is the diorama. (We use the word 'diorama' for a somewhat different kind of artwork than Daguerre's.) In 1821, he partnered with the painter, Charles Bouton, to create a new kind of theater, one that would strike audiences with wonder. You'd be in a room with two huge translucent canvases painted in highly realistic style, one an architectural scene and the other a natural landscape, each painted on both sides. The light was cleverly managed by a system of shutters to increase the realism (light shining through windows or leaves, for instance), and to create a 'second effect' as the light shifted and the audience could begin to see something of the painting on the other side shining through; this allowed you to create night and day versions, for instance.. Because the canvas had to remain stationary, the audience revolved around the screens. The Diorama theater opened in Paris, but during its brief popularity other Diorama theaters were opened in other cities, including London and Edinburgh.

Lady Mary Shepherd has a passage in Essays on the Perception of an External Universe discussing the illusion of external objects that can be created by putting colors in particular relations to each other. She uses the Diorama theater as an example of the effect:

If this proposition were not capable of proof by abstract reasoning, the exhibition of the Diorama now before the public (of a scene of natural size from nature, and another from art,) would be enough to prove that colouring is placed in proportion to the position of things among themselves; and such positions are as the capacities of distance, and the powers of motion in relation to us, as well as among themselves : The scene, independent of the understanding, is a scene of mental sensation; for when the mind is for a moment deluded, (of which I speak from experience, knowing that this extraordinary fac-simile of nature and art has the power of effecting a complete delusion,) and forgets the place in which it is--the relation of place being forgotten, the scenes are conceived of as real; i.e. the colouring is symptomatic as a quality of beings, which will fulfil the remainder of the qualities belonging to their definitions upon trial, and thus be equal to their whole definitions. But when we recollect where we are, the mind perceives these thoughts to be illusory, and the colouring is not then conceived to be a quality of such objects as will fulfil their whole definitions. (pp. 186-187)

R. Derek Wood has a nice article from 1993, The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s, in which he provides a handy summation of the Diorama scenes that were shown in Great Britain. He notes that the Lothian Road Diorama in Edinburgh was opened in December of 1827 and closed in 1839. However, given that the publication date for the Essays is 1827, she is probably not talking about the actual theater (which would have had ties to Daguerre himself). There was a special exhibition in Edinburgh in 1825, however, that had what seems to be a Scottish imitation of the Diorama that had already been shown in London; it was on display from January 11 to February 19. If we assume that Shepherd saw the Diorama in Edinburgh, this pins down quite precisely when she wrote the passage (note the claim that the exhibition is "now before the public"). It's perhaps not impossible that she had actually seen at some point the real Diorama in London, which opened in 1823, although that was a real Diorama theater and not an exhibition; but it is far more likely that she saw the Edinburgh one.

Shepherd conceives of the Diorama as a kind of analogue of dreaming; in dreaming we also forget the relation of place, but by habit we take the color-presentation to be a sort of sign of a real object; when we wake, we realize that the color-presentation was missing things like the relation of place, and thus recognize its illusory character. We see this played out as well in the Diorama, in which we seem to be transported to an actual place due to the realism of the paintings and the cleverness of the light effects, but then recollect ourselves as being in the theater.

Various Links of Interest

* Vatican City in LEGOs

* Gabriel Paletz, Deflating myths about Orson Welles

* Malcolm Keating on the Nyaya philosophy of debate 

* Taylor Patrick O'Neill, Self-Destruction and the Sin of Heresy

* Ed Feser, Augustine on divine illumination

* Damien Storey, What Is Eikasia? (PDF) discusses the least-discussed part of the Divided Line

* Mary Townsend, Little Women, Rebel Angels, discusses Simone de Beauvoir's enjoyment of Alcott's representation of Jo March.

* Richard Marshall interviews Martin Lin on Spinoza.  

* Glenn Geher, Politics in Academia: A Case Study.

 * Justin E. H. Smith, What Are the Humanities?

* Chad Denton, The Anguish of Academia

* Oliver Traldi, The Truth is Not Enough, discusses the purpose of universities

Currently Reading

Cat Hodge, Unstable Felicity
E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing
Michael Flynn, Falling Stars