Is this trend a sign of cheap and vulgar times? Perhaps, but ours is not the only guilty era. The 19th century, for instance, witnessed a craze for a comparable phenomenon: the panorama. In 1787, the Edinburgh-based Irish artist, Robert Barker, came up with a popular, profitable wheeze: a long, circular painting, lining the interior of a large cylindrical structure with a platform in the middle, offering a 360-degree view of the Scottish capital. It was such a hit that, six years later, he opened a permanent rotunda for his views in London. The Leicester Square Panorama turned a profit for the next seven decades.
Unsurprisingly, once Barker’s patent had expired, entrepreneurial copycats ripped him off – and, by the 1880s, according to the Grove Dictionary of Art, panoramas of dramatic military and biblical scenes had become “big business” across Europe and North America. One or two of these painted spectacles have survived, such as a cyclorama depicting the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg, or a circular view of Versailles (now in The Met).
Today, panoramas are considered an important precursor of another mass-market entertainment, with which we’re all familiar: the movies. Elsewhere, the 19th-century Northumbrian artist, John Martin, showed his melodramatic landscape paintings, or reproductions of them, inside theaters and shopping bazaars, as well as the Royal Academy. The strategy brought him fame, if little respect: John Constable dismissed one of his popular Biblical compositions as a “pantomime”.
Spectacle, then, has always been a prominent part of culture. Perhaps, by instinctively recoiling from the present fad for “immersive experiences”, I could be accused of snobbery: surely, their defenders might claim, they’re a force for good, introducing visual art, which is still sometimes seen as a preserve of the elite, to the masses, and making it accessible and exciting for children – who might be inspired to visit a museum.
Last year, in an apparently desperate attempt to bamboozle potentially bored kiddies with shiny tech, the National Gallery unveiled an app offering an augmented-reality trail of its collection, transforming much-loved masterpieces such as George Stubbs’s Whistlejacket into My Little Pony portraits.