A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part three)

Gordon Jones and Jackson Mackowski

Gordon Jones (r) and Jackson Mackowski (l)

(part three of four)

We continue today our behind-the-scenes tour of the Atlanta cyclorama at the Atlanta History Center’s Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. Our guide is Dr. Gordon Jones, chief military historian and curator for the museum. In yesterday’s segment, he explained how the restoration of the painting got underway.

“The next step is going to be the part that everybody was thinking we’re doing now, which is the whole cleaning and painting,” he said. “We’ve spent about two years on this project, and that is going to be the last thing we do.”

To get to that point has required tons—literally—of work, including removing the cyclorama from its former home in Grant Park. That also meant “getting all the artifacts out, getting the diorama out, getting the diorama figures out.” 

GORDON JONES: Did you see the painting when it was over there?

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I did not.

G.J.: Okay, the little plaster figures from the 1930’s—again Wilbur Kurtz’s [restoration artist from the 1930s]—all of those had to be taken out and crated. And then we had to cut up the surface of the diorama. In the 80s, they had to replace the dirt with fiberglass, which, from a health standpoint, is just as bad. So we had to get rid of all that.

So, just to get to the point where we can raise a scaffold on the face of this painting and get to the top rail, to actually physically measure it—we knew approximately what it was, and we were building the building to allow for that—but to actually get a proper measurement, we couldn’t do it until about February of 2016. And we had started this project in July of 2015.

And then, it took another year after that to attach the strip-lining to the bottom and the top, to have the spools made, and to have it scrolled onto two spools, lifted and craned out of the top of the building through two holes, and craned into this building. That was in February of 2017. So only now are you getting to the point of doing the restoration.

C.M.: Just the sheer size of it is a logistical issue.

G.J.: Hence the reason that the cyclorama fad was so short-lived. [They were popular in the 1880s.] This was virtual reality of its time, but imagine the overhead. You had to build these buildings that all had to be alike, all the same size, so you could interchange the paintings from buildings, But the expense—holy crap. You’re spending six- or eight-thousand dollars on the building. By some accounts, this painting was forty-thousand dollars to make. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but you have to have an awful lot of ticket sales. And after a while, the market is saturated and everyone’s tired of it. They’re ready to see other stuff.

So the fact that this one survives at all is really due to the fact that it was enshrined in Atlanta. It ended up in Atlanta, and the city decided to make it an icon of its history—an icon of the Confederate Lost Cause. That’s why it survived. Whether we like that or not, that’s why it survived. Now, we have to interpret it more fully to show all these different nuances.

C.M.: What do you think some of the coolest parts of the painting are?

G.J.: Right here. The breakthrough at the Troup Hurt house, and ever here there’s “Blackjack” Logan and then behind him, Captain Degress, racing with his batteries, to push forward the counter-attack. It’s that ‘cusp moment’ when everything’s in the balance. To me, part of the brilliance of this painting is that the artist chose that cusp moment, because if you want a heroic victory, then you don’t go for the 42-to-nothing ballgame, you go for the one that ends at the last minute with the extra point—so this is what he did.

Also, I think the artistry on this stuff is fantastic if you look, particularly at the horses. Here they’re slaughtering the battery horses, or the battery horses have been slaughtered to prevent the Confederates from carrying them off, but they’ve also chosen to show that process continuing. There were two horse painters, but I think this is by George Peter. Well, there were really about twenty different artists, but about ten were the top dogs; George Peter was one of them. He’s chosen to put these horses in their moment of agony, so it looks really disheartening to see that, and what he did was he went down to the glue factory and went to the slaughterhouse and he sketched the horses as they were being killed.

So you see this brilliantly rendered stuff and if you look over here—I love that explosion because it looks so 3-D coming at you.

Here, you see this captain on his horse. He’s looking backwards; you see the expression on him and you see the two horses there—wonderfully rendered horses. But then, look at Captain Jonas’s horse and—then this is August Mercy and, look, his horse—and they’re flat, they’re crap. Those are ones that have been retouched in 1898, 1909, 1922, and 1936. It was retouched because it suffered damage, particularly in the old building, before it came to Grant Park. So, you can tell what’s not done by the original artists.

So the question is then what do you do with that in terms of restoration. That’s an aesthetic choice. You want to be honest to the painting, but it’s also an aesthetic thing, where you want to honor the original artist—so that’s one of the decisions to make.

Sherman is up there: you can see him outlined in smoke. This is supposed to be Manning Force’s ambulance going up to headquarters. McPherson’s body is supposed to be in that ambulance right there that you can see in the trees.

And then you come back to the back of the painting, this is the Georgia railroad and Stone Mountain. You can see the Georgia railroad continuing straight over there, and that’s Atlanta. You’re right on the railroad cut. And some debate over how close the Troup Hurt house was to the railroad, and everybody says that this is awfully close. Well, it was, and one of the reasons it’s close is because we’re missing about four feet of painting right there! [See part two of the series for an explanation.] So that would be part of it, but it’s not all—only part of it.

And then you can see the Union forces coming up, and you can see the Confederate prisoners being taken back. That was a point of controversy when the painting came down south. Those soldiers were repainted as fleeing Yankees, because why would southern audiences want to see their compatriots being towed off as prisoners? Kurtz, to his credit, put them back. Now I know that’s the case with these guys down by the tree, but I don’t know if that’s the case with some of the others, where you see other sets of prisoners being led off. There are three sets of prisoners.

C.M.: I notice there’s a single bird over here.

G.J.: Ah, yes. Old Abe, the war eagle—the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin regiment. The 8th Wisconsin was not only not here, but Old Abe was not allowed to be removed from his perch, lest he should fly away—but no matter because the 8th Wisconsin was very famous and Old Abe was very famous in Wisconsin. When this painting was made, Old Abe had just died. I think he died in ’81. He was stuffed and preserved in the State House, so he was kind of the symbol of Wisconsin. So, here these German guys new to Wisconsin, painting this painting, decided to put a little nod to the old hometown, so they put Old Abe up there.

Another reason this is a great American treasure, the symbol of the 101st Airborne Division is an eagle. That’s Old Abe because those guys were formed up there, so in the first World War, when they were looking for a symbol for their patch—Wisconsin—their symbol is an eagle.

CM: I see the post-it notes on the canvas. Is that for aligning lights as you guys work?

GJ: That’s actually for the horizon, because the horizon eye needs to be at about the human eyeball level in order for the illusion to be right for you. So when the painting is finally attached to the upper rail, it’ll be up about two inches. Now all the stuff above you [he points to the support structures and scaffolding that hold the lights and the painting], that’ll be covered up with a cloth canopy so it’ll give the appearance that there’s nothing there but sky, and then of course the floor will be a diorama, so you won’t be able to see that either.

This platform we’re on will be outfitted to have a 19th century feel to it: faux-wood floors, iron posts, and covering up as much as we can to give the feel—and everyone knows it’s a modern space, but to give the feel of that century. You will also be able to go underneath the platform, and there will be exhibits down there too, and that’s different than Gettysburg. They couldn’t do it at the Gettysburg building. We figured out we could do it here, so why not have a little bit more space?

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“Is there a friendly rivalry with Gettysburg?” I ask Gordon in tomorrow’s conclusion. His answer may surprise you.