Tableau vivant  

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Adam and Eve (1924) Marcel Duchamp and Bronja Perlmutter

Tableau vivant (plural: tableaux vivants) is French for "living picture." The term describes a striking group of suitably costumed actors or artist's models, carefully posed and often theatrically lit. Throughout the duration of the display, the people shown do not speak or move. The approach thus marries the art forms of the stage with those of painting/photography, and as such it has been of interest to modern photographers. The most recent hey-day of the tableau vivant was the 19th century with virtually nude tableaux vivants or "poses plastiques" providing a form of erotic theatre.

Occasionally, a Mass was punctuated by short dramatic scenes and tableaux. They were a major feature of festivities for royal weddings, coronations and Royal entries into cities. Often the actors imitated statues, much in the way of modern street entertainers, but in larger groups, and mounted on elaborate temporary stands along the path of the main procession.


On a stage

Before radio, film and television, tableaux vivants were popular forms of entertainment. Before the age of colour reproduction of images the tableau vivant (often abbreviated simply to tableau) was sometimes used to recreate paintings "on stage", based on an etching or sketch of the painting. This could be done as an amateur venture in a drawing room, or as a more professionally produced series of tableaux presented on a theatre stage, one following another, usually to tell a story without requiring all the usual trappings of a "live" theatre performance. They thus 'educated' their audience to understand the form taken by later Victorian and Edwardian era magic lantern shows, and perhaps also sequential narrative comic strips (which first appeared in modern form in the late 1890s).

Since English stage censorship often strictly forbade actresses to move when nude or semi-nude on stage, tableaux vivants also had a place in presenting risqué entertainment at special shows. In the nineteenth century they took such titles as "Nymphs Bathing" and "Diana the Huntress" and were to be found at such places as The Hall of Rome in Great Windmill Street, London. Other notorious venues were the Coal Hole in the Strand and The Cyder Cellar in Maiden Lane. In the twentieth century London the Windmill Theatre (1932-64) provided erotic entertainment in the form of nude tableaux vivants on stage. Such entertainment was also to be seen at fairground sideshows (e.g.: seen in the film A Taste of Honey). Such shows had largely died out by the 1970s.

These "tableaux vivants" were often performed as the basis for school nativity plays in England during the Victorian period. Today, the custom is now only practised in a single English school - Loughborough High School (the oldest all-girl school in England, founded in 1850). Ten tableaux are performed each year at the school carol service: including the depiction of an all-grey engraving (in which the subjects are painted completely grey).

In the early years of the 20th century the German dancer Olga Desmond caused scandals with her “Evenings of Beauty” (Schönheitsabende) in which she posed nude in "living pictures", imitating classical works of art.

A tableaux vivant-style production called the Pageant of the Masters has been held in Laguna Beach, California every summer since 1933 (with the exception of four years during World War II). It involves hundreds of volunteers drawn from the surrounding area and attracts over a hundred thousand visitors annually. The festival recreates famous works of art on the stage. It has a different theme each year, but always features a recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." The only time Da Vinci's "Last Supper" did not appear was when the festival's theme was Salvador Dali, in which case Dali's "Last Supper" filled the void.

Yet another tableaux vivant-style production called the Pageant of our Lord has been held in Rolling Hills Estates, California every spring since 1985. This production differs only in that its focus is exclusively on the life of Jesus Christ as told through religious works of art. Like the Pageant of the Masters, this production relies on hundreds of volunteers from the surrounding area and has attracted over two-hundred thousand people. It has featured art pieces such as Michelangelo Bounarroti's Pieta, Claus Sleuter's The Well of Moses, De L' Esprie's Coming Home, and many others.

In photography

Tableau vivant was an approach to picture-making taken up by pioneers of early fine art photography, including David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in the 1840s. Other notable examples are Oscar Gustave Rejlander's Two Ways of Life (1857) and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's 'Xie' work with Alexandra Kitchin such as St. George and the Dragon (1875). Today, the approach is exemplified by fine art photographers and artists such as, Roger Ballen, Jan Saudek, Cindy Sherman, Sandy Skoglund, Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall, Amy Stein and Bernard Faucon. It has also influenced current trends in photocompositing.

Pictures of this sort are sometimes casually called "staged photography," but this is an imprecise term – since the simple posing of fashion models in the street is also 'staged photography'. Tableau vivant is a more precise term to use, if the staged picture obviously draws on the traditions and conventions of either the theatre or painting. Observe also that early photography involved exposure times in the minutes, so that there was the need to hold a pose.

In film and television

  • Jean-Luc Godard, in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, used in 1972 the tableau setting for the entire factory scene in Tout va bien. Nonetheless, his 1982 Passion features perhaps some of the most beautiful tableaux vivants present in cinema, and constitutes in itself a masterpiece that explores the very nature of cinema.
  • In Gus Van Sant's 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, sex scenes are constructed as a series of tableaux vivants.
  • Bela Tarr's film Satantango has many very long tableaux vivant shots.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Tableau vivant" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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