The Diorama as Artistic Process

In an 18th century Parisian drawing room, a fox sits enthroned on the divan of a duchess. The animal seems absorbed by a pigeon perched the decorative back moulding, wings spread, readying perhaps to fly off. In the centre of a reception hall with walls covered in crimson fabric, two stags are about to charge each other while royal guests look on. These two works from Karen Knorr’s series Fables (2003-2008), the first staged in a room with wainscoting from Hôtel de Broglie and shown at Musée Carnavalet, and the second staged in the Salon Rouge of Château de Chambord, are not, strictly speaking, dioramas. They are photographs of taxidermied animals that no longer occupy completely recreated natural environments as museum exhibits, but rather domestic interiors that have been reconstructed and institutionalized as period rooms.

Reflecting on the relationship between taxidermy and dioramas, Giovanni Aloi notes that several contemporary artists, including Knorr, have turned the camera lens to this museological device in a process that he describes as “the attempt to undo the intended seamless continuity with life that makes the display so seductive.”1 Aloi maintains that, in Fables, animals have “escaped the diorama” and that Knorr works “outside” it to deconstruct the illusion and revise the contemporary signification of this exhibition strategy. Playing on the double meaning of the word “shot” (as “photograph” and “gunshot”), Aloi suggests that photography enables Knorr to bring the hunter’s “shot” that killed the animal displayed in the diorama back to the production stages.2

Although Knorr does not claim a relationship between her work and the diorama, considering how Fables is staged will help us understand how the photographs reveal the constructed aspect of the diorama.3 However, the connection between Knorr’s work and the diorama should not simply be reduced to a critique of this museological assemblage and its institutional and ideological implications. On the contrary, while the artist does not produce a new diorama, she revisits its modes of constructing space through another device, namely photography, so as to create different spatial assemblages via the photograph itself, thus expanding the diorama’s possibilities in her contemporary art practice. Integrated into Knorr’s photographic work, the diorama is no longer the objective, but it factors into her creative process.

Rather than asking “what is the diorama in contemporary art?” one could consider “how might the diorama inform contemporary art practice?” Examining the diorama as process will help illustrate how it functions in its recent epistemological shift, as well as show its current artistic forms through a different lens and reposition it in the field of visual culture. The type of diorama being discussed here is not the one invented by Daguerre and Bouton in 1822, but its museum “relation,” which, by recreating a three-dimensional natural environment in a framed and often glassed-in space, can also be called a “habitat diorama.”4 One common feature of this device and Knorr’s work is the staging of taxidermied animals. Yet by submitting her montages to a second stage of manipulations, necessary to the representation of fauna in its habitat, Knorr introduces various species—birds, insects or animals photographed in other contexts such as zoos—through digital retouching. Made “after being shot” (by both camera and gun, to take up Aloi’s double meaning), these modifications show the constructed aspect of the diorama, developing yet also dematerializing its implied assemblage. The encounters between different species sometimes intensify the incongruity of the whole, an effect also associated with habitat dioramas, in which animals that cannot be observed simultaneously in nature are displayed side by side. Furthermore, although the animals appear to roam free in Knorr’s photographs, they are nevertheless confined within the frame of the shot, which, like the bounds of the diorama display case, delimit the representation of the environment offered to the visitor’s gaze.

In habitat dioramas, the animals occupy an environment that recreates their natural habitat outside the museum walls. Decorative elements, such as artificial plants and rocks, are set against a background painted in trompe-l’oeil in which the edges are usually rounded to enhance the illusion of depth. However, Knorr stages animals in a different kind of setting: a domestic space. Several photographs in the Fables series are set in period rooms, which can be considered “domestic” counterparts of dioramas.5 Examining the meaning of place and calling into question the museum institution are recurrent themes in Knorr’s photographs. By merging the diorama and period room through mise-en-scène and photography, Knorr reveals the constructed aspect of these two devices, commenting on the museum as well as its museological strategies and practices. In so doing, she also draws on the aesthetic potential of these two ways of reconstructing space in order to create a new environment. This environment, although appearing disordered due to the animal  presence, finds its coherence in the photograph when visual balance is achieved particularly through the harmony of the colour and the classical proportions of the framing.

Through photography, Knorr produces an image based on two exhibition strategies, which are closely connected to the image. Indeed, by developing the concept of “analogical museography” in connection with the diorama and its derivations, Raymond Montpetit deftly shows how an image can be composed of “three-dimensional staged objects.”6 Thus, the diorama, in which visual effectiveness is based in part on the realism of the painted background (therefore on a pictorial representation of landscape), offers an idealized image of a natural setting, just as the period room offers an idealized image of a cultural, historical and usually domestic setting. Presenting a mise en abyme of representations, Knorr introduces a series of substitutions, which, as well as questioning the ideals of the images suggested by dioramas and period rooms, explores the possibilities of these two devices to create a contemporary artwork.

From the outset, the surface of the photograph as object replaces the glass surface. Standing before the glass cases of dioramas (or certain period rooms), visitors cannot access the space. Facing the large-format prints of Fables, visitors are equally placed outside the device, since spatial depth is reduced to a two-dimensional plane. Knorr nevertheless references the relation between the illusion of depth and the surface effect inherent to dioramas in the way she presents her work. By showing the photographs in the places where they were taken, Knorr invites visitors to enter the space of the image and inhabit the animal’s place in the diorama/period room.

This suggests some interchangeability between human and animal. By replacing the diorama’s “natural” setting with the highly codified one of French domestic interiors of the Ancien Régime, Knorr evokes the critical and moral aspect of the literary fable in several photographs of Fables. Yet, more importantly, the artist plays on the ambiguous place accorded to the subject in the two exhibition strategies informing the mise-en-scène that she photographs. In fact, a habitat diorama cannot exist without the presence of animals, which are the primary subjects, although they must be dead. In contrast, in a museum period room, not only is the occupant’s presence unnecessary, it is often eliminated from the exhibition or simply evoked by a few signs, suggesting a former way of life.7 By merging the diorama and period room in her work, Knorr playfully and satirically reveals the paradoxical relationship between nature and culture present in these two devices, while simultaneously drawing on the formal aspect of the relationship to make her photographs.

By taking the place of human subjects or the signs of their activities in period rooms, the animals in Fables appear to subvert the social order, based equally on the social codes of 18th century French high society and those of the museum, leading Knorr to a social and institutional critique. However, their presence amongst the furnishings, decorative objects and paintings can also be interpreted as a reference to the decorative use of taxidermied animals in Victorian homes. Thus, in an unexpected manner, by reworking the modalities of the diorama and the period room, Knorr also evokes the historical context in which they developed.

Through these staged presentations, the artist presents a self-referential view of the diorama and photography. In the 19th century, when shutter speeds were not yet fast enough to capture animals in action (such as birds flying), some animal photographers photographed taxidermied animals in nature, particularly to create stereoscopic views. Albert Eide Parr and Karen Wonders suggest that this practice is a precursor to the diorama.8 By creating images in which mounted animals encounter birds that were photographed in flight and then digitally added, Knorr’s approach references both the origins of the diorama and the history of photography.

In Fables, Knorr critiques, although indirectly, the diorama as a museum exhibition device; reusing some of its formal and conceptual characteristics, she activates and actualizes its modalities in her art practice. Though closely connected to the development of photography and the modes of production and presentation of the image in the 19th century, here the diorama informs the creation of contemporary photographs.

Translated by Oana Avasilichioaei

 

Marie-Ève Marchand holds a PhD from the Université de Montréal. Her doctoral thesis in art history examines the material, spatial and temporal specificity of the period room as a museological device. Her research focuses on the epistemological implications of exhibiting decorative art, as well as on historical revivals in American material culture of the 19th century, particularly in art museums and domestic interiors in the USA.

 


  1. Giovanni Aloi, Art and Animals, London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012, p. 29.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Rebecca Comay also suggests a connection between Knorr’s work and the diorama in an interview with the artist, although Knorr does not comment on this idea. Rebecca Comay and Karen Knorr, “Natural Histories: Karen Knorr in Conversation with Rebecca Comay, 2002.” January 2002, http://www.fillesducalvaire.com/texts/Knorr_92-1.pdf.
  4. Karen Wonders, “The Illusionary Art of Background Painting in Habitat Dioramas.” Curator: The Museum Journal 33, #2 (1990), p. 90; Raymond Monpetit, “Une logique d’exposition populaire : les images de la muséographie analogique.” Publics et Musées 9 (1996), p. 65.
  5. See in particular Albert Eide Parr, “Habitat Group and Period Room.” Curator: The Museum Journal 6.4 (1963), p. 325-336.
  6. Raymond Montpetit, op. cit., p. 57.
  7. Heritage village presentations are different. Mannequins are often displayed in their period rooms, which is a practice seldom-used in art museums.
  8. Albert Eide Parr, op. cit., p. 325; Wonders, Karen. “Exhibiting Fauna – From Spectacle to Habitat Group.” Curator: The Museum Journal 32, #2 (1989), p. 136.