Saving The ”IMAX Of Its Day”

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“Look at this,” Huston says en route, pointing to a fleck of off-color paint peeling from a soldier’s face midway up the scaffold. “We’re dealing with three generations of restorations good and bad.” He indicates additional problems: here, flaking paint that must be secured, or “consolidated”; there, a vignette showing a soldier hoisting a rope on a pulley supported by a two-legged tripod, the third leg having disappeared over the years. Huston glances next at the grim sky. “It’s totally gray, completely degraded,” he announces. To restore it, he vows, the artist will be his guide: “Philippoteaux can’t speak for himself. We’re here to defend the artist, to restore the painting to the way he first conceived it.” The rehabilitation team has been poring over surviving records of earlier displays, hoping to re-create Philippoteaux’s vision. It is even considering the placement of detritus—plants, discarded canteens and knapsacks, and other military hardware—at the base of the picture, just as had been done in Boston. “In its original incarnation,” Huston marvels, “it was hard for the spectator to know where the painting began or ended; there was a suspension of reality that took one’s breath away. We have to try to re-create that.”

 

That will mean adding some 15 feet of lost sky and making it look blue again—as well as placing the next generation of visitors not at the bottom of the Cyclorama looking up, as they have been compelled to do since 1962, but much higher, nearer the horizon, and looking across and down, as Philippoteaux intended. When rehung in its new home, the canvas should also assume its original shape, a hyperbola, wider at the top and bottom, a shift likely to cast long-unseen focus on the effects the artist intended to highlight.

And the repair work will not end with the rehabilitation of the face of the painting visible to the public. Much attention must be paid, too, to the reverse. “The other thing we have to do,” Huston reported after clambering up the scaffolding to the uppermost regions of the painting’s skyline, “is remove the old lining and either reline the thing entirely or mount it to a reversible support with an underleaf. One of the earlier mountings used animal-based glue that leached through and damaged the picture. And it didn’t even properly secure it.” As David Olin pointed out, the restoration team will try to understand not only the art but “the science of the painting and its mounting system.”

All told, the project constitutes nothing less than the American equivalent of the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling—certainly one of the largest such projects ever attempted on this continent.

When it is all done, will twenty-first-century visitors experience the same awe that overwhelmed its admirers in Boston in the 1880s? Properly lit, evocatively restaged, and with its higher vantage point, the painting may well have the power, in its new home in a new Gettysburg Visitor Center, to transport modern viewers into the violent cacophony that soldiers experienced at the high-water mark of the Confederacy during the apex of Pickett’s Charge. Robert C. Wilburn, President of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation, likes to tell potential contributors that the cyclorama was the “IMAX of its day.” But he hopes that proves an understatement.

Vanished Heritage Restoring a Battlefield Do we really need to spend a lot of time, effort, and money saving this big old painting?