Think of it as the nineteenth-century version of a summer blockbuster: Before there were movies, there were panoramic paintings. Massive, dramatic, narratively reductive, the long-scrolling works traveled around the globe, describing in cartoonish vignettes marvels of nature, exotic lands, famous battles and popular histories; to see them, audiences would fork over a fraction of a cent a pop. The Saint Louis Art Museum has exhumed from deep storage the last remaining panorama of the Mississippi River Valley, a 348-foot, 25-scene painting by John Egan commissioned in about 1850 by a Dr. Montroville Dickeson. A physician and amateur archaeologist who hailed from Pennsylvania, Dickeson had abandoned the former practice for the latter and spent several years traveling along the Mississippi and sketching excavated ruins. (He pocketed the occasional relic while he was at it; a selection of ceramic pots and pipes are also on view.) Based on the erstwhile doctor's sketches, Egan's mural betrays a bias toward the fantastic, complete with mastodon bones, caverns filled with mummified corpses and a massive river intermittently punctuated by sculpted colossi, grand battle scenes and ravaging tornadoes while native populations engage in colorful and mysterious rituals and squatters are pursued by wolves. The medium was vehemently maligned by the great thinkers of its time as a threat to human senses, numbing and crass, the lowest form of entertainment — makes you wonder how truly fucked we now are. Worn down by time and rigorous use and now being restored while you watch, this intricate and wild masterpiece is palpably natural in its hand-wrought, picture-book quaintness. Seeing the conservators quietly dab at its troubled surface with their little crayons is to be thrown as far away from spectacle as we're capable of getting these days. Through September 3 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive (in Forest Park); 314-721-0072 or www.slam.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)
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