The Cyclorama: How to move a 6-ton painting

Picking up a fragile, 6-ton painting that’s longer than a football field is a bit like stretching a tent made out of tissue paper: It takes the skills of a museum conservator and the engineering talents of a circus roustabout.

On Thursday, the Atlanta History Center and a squad of experts in “high value” transportation opened up a 7-foot hole in the roof of the Grant Park building where it’s been displayed since 1921, and hoisted out one section of “The Battle of Atlanta,” one of the last cyclorama paintings in existence

The second section was scheduled to be moved Friday morning.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The painting had already been cut into two pieces and wrapped around two 45-foot-tall spindles, each weighing close to 12,000 pounds, including all the hardware used to keep the painting taut. The first of the two spindles was hauled through the building's roof, placed on the back of a truck. Later Friday the two would be ferried uptown to the Atlanta History Center's campus off West Paces Ferry Road.

Bundled against the cold, Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the history center, watched as the first section rose into the chilly sky. “That’s the best artifact there is,” he said.

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It is the latest chapter in the story of a masterpiece of disposable art that has improbably survived for more than 130 years.

There were plenty of bumps along the way.

Created by a team of German artists in Milwaukee in 1885, it was displayed in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Chattanooga, Tenn., before the painting arrived in Atlanta in 1892. It was displayed in two different structures, one of which collapsed under a surprise snowfall, before an Atlanta businessman bought it and donated it to the city.

With great hoopla, the city built a “fireproof” home for the painting, which opened in 1921. But the city fathers made a few mistakes.

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The 49-foot-tall painting was actually taller than the building. No problem: They lopped a few feet off “The Battle of Atlanta’s” top edge, which was mostly sky.

The circumference of the painting was also slightly greater than the circumference of the room where it would be installed. Again: no problem. They sliced out a little in the middle and, presto: perfect fit.

In addition to these unfortunate Procrustean solutions, other blunders would follow. Exhibit designers used real Georgia soil to build the three-dimensional diorama in the foreground, which was full of real Georgia bugs, bacteria, mold and moisture. The painting, on delicate Belgian linen, began to rot.

When the city of Atlanta raised $15 million to renovate the painting in 1979, conservators tried to make up for past ills, but committed new ones. The decision to glue the painting to a fiberglass backing has been criticized as an irreversible fix. And the new rotating bleachers, where viewers sat, turning slowly, to the accompaniment of a recorded tour, obscured about half of the painting at any given moment.

But now the more-than-130-year-old painting is moving to a new home, and the strong fiberglass backing has turned into an advantage. “For us, it is perfect,” said Ulrich Weilhammer, one of the German conservators overseeing the move and restoration, “because right now the painting is like paper.” The backing assures that the painting will survive without disintegrating.

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Another 1979 innovation made the moving job much easier. Back then, the painting was hung from rollers on a rail that circled the room at ceiling level. It allows the entire painting to rotate, like a shower curtain on a circular shower rod. Today the moving company was able to feed the painting bit by bit onto the stationary spindles, minimizing any abrasion, wrinkling and loss of paint.

“That was one of the dividends from the restoration years ago that helped us today,” said Gordon Jones, military historian at the history center.

“We don’t have to move along the painting,” said Weilhammer. “The painting moves around us.”

It’s a feat of engineering genius. But cyclorama paintings and engineering genius seem to go together. “The Battle of Atlanta” is one of the last examples of a 19th-century art form that required months of preparation, an army of artisans, specially built structures and a very destructive life on the road.

At one time in the late 1800s, there were hundreds of cyclorama paintings, moving from town to town, where new audiences would line up to walk inside one of these startlingly realistic creations. Today only three remain on display in North America, including “The Battle of Gettysburg,” at Gettysburg National Military Park. Never intended to last forever, the rest have been discarded, finding the same ignominious end as old billboards and circus posters.

The painting was created to celebrate a Union victory, but was embraced by post-Civil War Atlanta as a kind of symbol of the Lost Cause. Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren visited the Cyclorama on field trips, stopping in the basement of the building to also see the Texas, one of the locomotives that participated in the Civil War skirmish called the Great Locomotive Chase.

Since the painting’s 1979-81 renovation, it has been reinterpreted as neither Confederate nor Union propaganda but as a detailed record of the Atlanta landscape during the conflict and as an account of the battle that effectively ended the war and shaped modern Atlanta.

“These shifting viewpoints are precisely what make ‘The Battle of Atlanta’ such a distinctive and important artifact,” said the history center’s Hale. “No other object can so vividly tell the story of how attitudes toward the Civil War have been shaped and reshaped over the past 150 years.”

The painting will arrive at the history center’s campus off West Paces Ferry, where it will be installed in the new 23,000-square-foot Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building, created expressly to display this mammoth artifact. The newly restored Texas will also be displayed in a glass-fronted gallery nearby.

The building is still being finished. When the dust settles, the painting will be unspooled, hung in its appropriate hyperbolic shape, and conservators will begin repairing the canvas, adding back the missing sky and the 6-foot-wide vertical strip in the middle.

It probably won’t go on display until fall 2018.

Jones, the historian, stood outside the Grant Park Cyclorama building Thursday afternoon as crews maneuvered the crane into position to lift the two spools holding the $7.5 million painting.

“I’m excited,” he said. “We’ve been on this thing for 18 months, all of it to get us to this place and time.”