A Victory for the Civil War ‘Cyclorama’

Now well over a century old, it still makes for effective theater. After entering the circular space through a tunnel and ascending a short escalator, you get a sudden, sweeping, horizon-level view of the painting and diorama below. You can then descend to floor level, where you can check out the stage mechanics (the steel weights that keep the painting’s surface taut, for example) and examine the painting and sculptures close up. Masterpieces, they’re not. The figures, executed by artists on the W.P.A. rolls, are roughly formed and summarily colored. The style of the painting might be described as a mix of Romantic realism and deadline-Impressionism: The whole thing was finished, in what seem to have been long, beer-fueled sessions, in a matter of weeks.

Wisely, the Center doesn’t treat the cyclorama as art, entertainment or monument. It presents it as a dynamic artifact of the past with complicated information for the present. Indeed, the really interesting aspect of the cyclorama in its new home at the Center is the way it is documented, interpreted, and explained.

Gordon L. Jones, the Center’s senior military historian, has scrupulously researched its specific history, nested that history within the context of other histories, social and political, and laid out his findings in an adjoining gallery. The most radical commentary, though, is inside the cyclorama itself. It comes in a series of myth-puncturing wall texts on the causes and effects of the Civil War and the propaganda it produced, and, in a short video projected onto the painting’s surface, insists on the need for vigilance in separating history from fiction.

That separation is, as we know from the truth-doctoring of the present moment, an elusive one. Maybe it has always been. The hopeful news is that our history museums, particularly, lately, those in the South, are acknowledging this, and going for truth. Their basic premise is plain: history doesn’t change, we change, and we’d better start now.

Cyclorama: The Big Picture

On permanent view at the Atlanta History Center, beginning Feb. 22; 404-814-4000, atlantahistorycenter.com.