For many years we have been seeing installations and groupings of objects and figures either culled from the real world or meticulously fabricated. Rather than being displayed in a straightforward and unambiguous way in a gallery or museum setting, they are often separated from viewers by a framing device, such as a vitrine, a box, or other clear zone of demarcation. This distancing effect, rather like looking at something through the wrong end of a telescope, intensifies a work’s emotional charge, whether it’s of wonder, political or social edification, or of fear, revulsion, entropy, or dystopia. (Think of Damien Hirst’s glassed-in and formaldehyde-soaked animals.)
The curators of “Dioramas,” currently on view at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, have given this art-world phenomenon a broadened social and historical context. The earlier pieces they selected range from 18th-century Catholic devotional waxworks to scientifically accurate 20th-century animal dioramas (pioneered by Carl Akeley at the Museum of Natural History in New York). However, in between are the first works actually called dioramas—semitransparent 19th-century romantic landscape paintings lit from behind with a program of changing lights, conveying the effect of motion. Invented by Louis Daguerre, it’s a kind of public proto-cinema that continues today in the work of the visionary collector, antiquarian, and showman Jean-Paul Favand, founder of the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris. The 19th century (and early 20th), with its sorting and cataloging passions, coupled with its tendency toward sentimentality and self-satisfaction, produced habitat-group taxidermy displays (typified by the vitrines of the English firm Rowland Ward, which took the trophies collected by big game hunters and safari-goers and set them into dramatic and often violent tableaus); as well as goofy peaceable-kingdom assemblages of stuffed predators and prey cuddling up together; condescending colonialist ethnographic set-ups, and visual presentations of serious anthropological research, including the costumes and artifacts of domestic folk and peasant cultures under siege from the modern world.