Forest Lawn - Coley Brown for The New York Times

A view of the Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection at the Forest Lawn Museum, which houses the colossal painting “The Crucifixion” by the Polish artist Jan Styka.Credit…Coley Brown for The New York Times


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Why Can’t a Cemetery Have the Hottest Painting in Town?

Forest Lawn’s museum director and resident art historian, James Fishburne, has re-envisioned a storied panorama painting, with a theatrical show and slick animations.


By Ethan Tate
Reporting from Glendale, Calif.
Aug. 31, 2023


Small armies of landscapers tend to lush grass and rolling hills, where private roads with names like “Memory Lane” and “Baby Land” lead upward past maximalistmausoleums, columbaria and replica Renaissance statuary.


At the top is the quaintly named Mount Forest Lawn, a hill housing a theater named the Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection, built for just a single work: the Polish artist JanStyka’s 195-feet-by-45-feet “The Crucifixion,” one of the largest religious paintings in the world. A turn-of-the-20th-century marvel, the artwork is part of the short-livedgenre of panorama painting — canvases hung in near-360 degrees that provided viewers an affordable immersive journey, often to vistas of Christendom or crowdedbattle sequences.


The theater and adjoining art museum are part of Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, a 300-acre cemetery that has been a Los Angeles landmark since it was founded byHubert Eaton in 1917. A medley of architecture, art and artifacts, the burial grounds are the forever homes of Michael Jackson, Carole Lombard, Jimmy Stewart, WaltDisney and countless other stars, with flat grave markers to ensure that the emerald green hills and views of downtown Los Angeles remain unobstructed.


Forest Lawn - Coley Brown for The New York Times
The Forest Lawn Museum, right, and the adjoining Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection, left, are part of the 300-acre, star-studded Forest Lawn Memorial-Park.Credit…Coley Brown for The New York Times


The painting lives behind some of the largest curtains in the world — twice as wide as an IMAX screen — and is viewable from 700 red velvet seats. To reach it, visitorsmust traverse an architectural mishmash, entering through a crudely imitated Italian cathedral facade, then passing through a French Gothic stained glass corridorbefore stepping into a grand movie hall. There, Styka’s Jesus, nearing his last moments on Golgotha, gazes toward a heavenly Klieg light, surrounded by Mary, theapostles and a thousand extras.


This September, visitors will see a new program for the painting, its first major overhaul since the Hall of Crucifixion opened on Good Friday in 1951. The painting hasalways been presented with a dramatic sound-and-light show, simulating thunder and lightning, with fire-and-brimstone-tinged narration while double-timing as anadvertisement for the cemetery’s mortuary services. (Feeling the Passion of the Christ was only half-told, Eaton commissioned the Southern California artist RobertClark to produce a sequel: “The Resurrection.” This smaller work was added to the Hall in 1965.)


Forest Lawn - Coley Brown for The New York Times
Detail of “The Crucifixion,” with Jesus surrounded by Mary, the apostles and scores of extras. On the far left stands the apostle Saul, whom the artist, Jan Styka, painted as his own self-portrait.Credit…Coley Brown for The New York Times


James Fishburne, Forest Lawn’s museum director and resident art historian, has re-envisioned the audiovisual program of “The Crucifixion,” untangling the secular fromthe sacred and chronicling the painting’s roundabout journey from Eastern Europe to the United States, where, according to Forest Lawn lore, it was found by Eaton inthe basement of the Chicago Opera House wrapped around a telephone pole. If the previous iteration of the program resembled a late-night religious infotainmentsoundscape, the new version is midday History Channel. Out are the voice of God, lightning and jump-scare musical cues.


“Forest Lawn Museum is an unorthodox arts institution, but yes, absolutely, it is part of a functioning cemetery,” said Fishburne, who pointed out that historically thepainting’s primary audience has been the few bereaved visitors who come to the theater to decompress.


“We’ve made a genuine effort to broaden the appeal of the experience,” Fishburne explained. “Frankly, I want everyone to visit it. I want everyone from SouthernCalifornia, I want everyone from the country, and the whole world to visit and I know that’s an ambitious goal.”


A chipper curator, Fishburne is a Navy veteran and former Getty Research Institute scholar, specializing in Renaissance-era papal coinage, somehow right at homeamong the undertakers and burial advisers at the cemetery. His hiring in 2018 signaled a radical departure for Forest Lawn Museum, a 5,400-square-feet space of artgalleries and the adjacent theater, both of which have remained largely unchanged for 72 years.


Alison Bruesehoff, a former Forest Lawn Museum director, said when she took over in 2001, an exhibition on Michelangelo looked like it had been there for decades.


“They had to make a decision,” she said. “Do we do something with this museum or do we not?”


Forest Lawn - Coley Brown for The New York Times
James Fishburne, director of the Forest Lawn Museum, in the recently renovated control room at the Hall of Crucifixion-Resurrection.Credit…Coley Brown for The New York Times


Forest Lawn decided to do something. “I do want to give credit to my predecessors, some of whom I know and some of whom I don’t, but I think it was a gradualrealization of the historic importance of this site,” Fishburne said.


Now he has a star-turning role, appearing in the museum’s audiovisual accompaniment of “The Crucifixion.” A new 12-foot digital video screen has been added, completewith slick, globe-trotting animations, “definitely inspired by Indiana Jones,” Fishburne acknowledged. He appears occasionally throughout the video as a guide, teamingwith a professional narrator to tell the history of the painting, Forest Lawn’s surreal architecture, and the biblical details in Styka’s composition. Much attention has beengiven to new LED spotlights, which pinpoint characters and scenes in the painting.


Fishburne’s makeover brings a decidedly more academic, technical and art-history-minded cadence to the theatrical show, a far cry from its previous program. The goalwas to create a show that balanced its past billing as a religious, almost roadside attraction, and its future as a work of art.


“It was very, very religious,” said Bruesehoff, who was pivotal in the program’s last update in 2006.


Forest Lawn - Coley Brown for The New York Times
A view across the cemetery’s Whispering Pines section with the Great Mausoleum visible in the background. In “The Builder’s Creed,” Forest Lawn’s founder, Hubert Eaton, laid out his philosophy for “A Great Park, Devoid of Misshapen Monuments and Other Customary Signs of Earthly Death.”Credit…Coley Brown for The New York Times


“People have never heard of it,” Asha Schechter, an artist and art professor at Otis College of Art and Design, said about Styka’s painting. “It’s the idea of building anentire structure to house one work in this extremely theatrical way. It demonstrates art can be made that won’t just live in a white box for five weeks but can exist overan indefinite period of time.” For years, Schechter has taken groups of students to visit the painting, noting that they can be overwhelmed — not just by its scale, but bythe confrontation with mortality and visual aesthetics of eternal memorialization.


Sara Velas is the director of the Velaslavasay Panorama, one of the few remaining panorama painting venues in the country. Coordinating with the launch of the newprogram, Fishburne enlisted the help of Velas and her organization to curate an exhibition on the history of such panoramic paintings, also at the Forest Lawn Museum.


“An argument could be made that panorama paintings are not pre-cinema, but that they are cinema themselves,” Velas said. “The way that peripheral vision is activatedinherently makes things more experiential and opens up a different type of memory, really.”


For Velas, also a painter, the installation of Styka’s painting in a movie theater with overt theatrical framing makes perfect sense.


“The curtain opens and closes and it’s the same psychological preparation,” she said.


Could the revamp of Styka’s painting signal a new lease on life for the cemetery’s museum program?


“If somebody said, ‘Would you rather have a show at Forest Lawn Museum or would you rather have it at MOCA?’ I would pick Forest Lawn Museum in a second.”