tableau vivant

The living picture, the tableau historique, the pose plastique, the pregnant moment, the costumed tableau and the film still are just some of the colloquial phrases that have been used over the years to describe tableau vivant.

The word tableau is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as, “a picture; a picturesque or graphic description,” and the word “vivant” is derived from the Latin word meaning “living.”[1] Furthermore, a related variation on the word “vivant” is vivarium, a noun that refers to a place used for scientific study. [1] It is interesting to think of a third agency in this relationship being a kind of live study.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase “tableau vivant” as, “a representation of a personage, character, scene, incident, etc., or of a well-known painting or statue, by one person or a group of persons in suitable costumes and attitudes, silent and motionless.” [1] Historically, “tableaux vivants denoted figures posed, silent and immobile, for twenty or thirty seconds, in imitation of well-known works of art or dramatic scenes from history and literature.”[3] In 1760, the Italian actor, Carlo Bertinazzi staged the Greuze’s painting The Village Betrothal in Les Noces d’Arlequin In 1781, at the Royal Palace in Versailles, the court appointed governess to the sons of the Duke of Orleans, Madame de Genlis, was known to stage tableau vivants in her tutelage utilizing paintings of Jacque Louis-David and Eugene Louis Isabey. [11] Not only were these playful costumed stagings but they were also used to dramatize important moments of history and literature in order to educate and inform.

Greuze

David

Isabey

The phrase and practice of tableau vivant originated as medieval liturgical dramas when a mass ended in a short, dramatic series or tableaux. [3] “Although its emblematic and allegorical characteristics recall medieval drama, the “tableau” emerged as a true art form on the Continent and in England in the eighteenth century.” [2] Another facet of the use of tableau vivant was the pose plastique, “here the performer would imitate classical statuary, introducing the nude and transforming these larger portrayed scenes….”,while still portraying a decided moment. [11] We could compare the manifestation of the tableau vivant with Barthes ‘ consideration of the film still; both being an analysis of a pregnant moment. Barthes believes the film still has the capacity to extract the whole diegesis of a film. In The Third Meaning, Barthes cites Eisenstein’s thoughts about the film still offering us “inside the fragment.” He agrees with Eisenstein’s belief about the film still being the, “basic center of gravity.” The center of gravity being,”… no longer the element ‘between shots’-the shock- ….the accentuation within the fragment.”

In the early part of the nineteenth century the stage and parlor tableaux came to the Americas with much success. Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, an American magazine describes tableaux vivant as one of the most popular amusements of the time, “…. engendering a love for and appreciation of art.”[4] Tableau vivant’s beginnings were associated within a class structure that could not only afford time but consideration of this activity. Goethe acknowledges this by saying “Here the place is to think of still another decided hobby of the Neapolitaner….presenting angels and kings, more or less completely, richly and preciously together grouped. [5] Goethe believed that tableaux vivant functioned merely as entertainment (diversions, evening amusement) once they were appropriated.”[6] Frederic Wertham would argue, in Seduction of the Innocent, ”To make a sharp distinction between entertainment and learning is poor pedagogy, and even worse psychology. A great deal of learning comes in the form of entertainment, and a great deal of entertainment painlessly teaches important things.”[7] In time, tableau vivant becomes a tool like any other by re-contextualizing its citation to the past.

One commonality to this practice is the consideration of mimesis [link]. The term mimesis is derived from the Greek mimesis, meaning to imitate. [12] The tableau vivant acts as an imitation; the act of copying a copy. Walter Benjamin believed it was inherently human and part of the natural order of man to imitate. In the Neo-classical debate over aesthetics and cultural norms, Lessing believes that media have certain truths and unique capacities in their separateness. In his essay Laocoön he describes what he believes to be the limits of painting and poetry; writing being supremely phonetic and paintings primarily pictorial and graphic. In describing the artist’s responsibility to portray the shield of Achilles Lessing states, “Thus, here too he has made use of that admirable artistic device: transforming what is coexistent in his subject into what is consecutive, and thereby making the living picture of an action out of the tedious painting of an object.” [14]

I think it is more useful to start to consider tableau vivant evolving into more of a modality enabling varying ends. Could the tableau vivant not only be an act of duplication, but of appropriation, as well? The Oxford English Dictionary defines appropriation as “to take to or for oneself; take possession of. “ [1] “Tableaux vivants are, as it were, a corporeal appropriation of art history, which keeps traditional images alive through a permanent process of transformation.” [10]

If we were to think of the denotation and referential aspects alone of tableau vivant one could say that you not only learn about the technical aspects, that is, the materiality [link], costuming, composition, and lighting of the original work but also the history and artist. But what is the attraction to duplicate when there is already a perfectly suitable manifestation? I say the motivation is to create another idea. There are many examples in which an artist has appropriated an idea, acted as mediator, and then translated the work to occupy their own end. Swedish born painter and photographer Oscar Rejlander created a photograph by duplicating a highly celebrated painting by Alain Merot in 1627, St. John the Baptist’s Head Held by Herodias or Salome. The original painting was described as, “…of the dramatic legend of Salome, (her identity often conflated that of her mother, Herodias) with the head of John the Baptist.” [9] In the photograph, Rejlander reposes himself in the beheaded image of John the Baptist. The viewer can only speculate as to the artist’s reasoning behind fashioning himself in the role of a dead saint, or martyr for that matter, but it in this act of appropriation that this duplication is doing more than citing the original work. It now includes another history; that of Oscar Rejlander.

Rejlander

Another example of this kind of appropriation, perhaps a more light-hearted example, utilizing a reference from art history is the American musical, Sunday in the Park with George inspired by the painting Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. In 1984, this musical gained Broadway success. Drawing from the original work, the musical playfully contemplates the circumstances surrounding Seurat’s creation of the work in 1886. Here again, we see the another creation in the practice of tableau vivant adapted into something else entirely: a musical that incorporates song, dance, and live performance.

Seurat

In a more contemporary fine art practice, Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation’s acclaimed video-musical, The Rape of the Sabine Women utilizes tableau vivant in five video acts combining live action,

Danielle Paz

NOTES

1. Online Oxford English Dictionary

2. Monika M. Elbert, Striking a Historical Pose: Antebellum Tableaux Vivants, “Godey’s” Illustrations, and Margaret Fuller’s Heroines. MA: New England Quarterly Inc. 2002

3. Mary Chapman.“Living pictures”, Women and Tableaux Vivants in Nineteenth Century American Fiction and Culture. 1992.“ NY: Cornell University Press

4. Godey’s Lady Book

5. Goethe, Johann Von Wolfgang

6. Peter M. Isaac. Rethinking Tableaux Vivants and Triviality in the Writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johanna Schopenhauer, and Fanny Lewald 2007

7. Frederic Wertham, M.D. Seduction of the Innocent. 1953 NY: Rinehart & Company

8. Charles Sanders Peirce, Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Edited by Justis Buchler NY, Dover Publications

9. Art in America, Duchampiana: The Decollation of Saint Marcel October 2006, pg107-119

10. Tableaux Vivants – Living Pictures and Attitudes in Photography, Film, and Video 24.5. – 25.8.2002

11. Cambridge University Press. GuideTheatre.

12. Edwards, Paul, ed.  “Mimesis,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy , vol. 5&6 .  (New York: Macmillian, 1967) 335.

13. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol 3 1935-1938 edited by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings Cambridge, MA The Bleknap Press of Harvard University Press

14. Gotthol Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön, An essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry

15. Roland Barthes, The Third Meaning

WORKS CITED

Art in America, Duchampiana: The Decollation of Saint Marcel by Sheldon Nodelman, October 2006, pg107-119

Art in America, Reconstructing David by Robert Rosenblum, May 1990, pg188-207

Barthes, Roland, The Third Meaning, A Barthes Reader, ed by Susan Sontag, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982

Benjamin, Walter, Selected Writings 1935-1938, Trans Jephcott, Eiland, and others, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ Press

Chapman, Mary, .“Living pictures”, Women and Tableaux Vivants in Nineteenth Century American Fiction and Culture, 1992.“ NY: Cornell University Press Elbert, Monika M Striking a Historical Pose: Antebellum Tableaux Vivants, “Godey’s” Illustrations, and Margaret Fuller’s Heroines. MA: New England Quarterly Inc., 2002

. Anne Pasternak, President. Copyright 1974-2008, Creative Time, Inc.

Edwards, Paul, ed.  “Mimesis,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy , vol. 5&6 .  (New York: Macmillian, 1967) 335.

Godey’s Lady Book, edited by Sarah J. Hale, November 1851.

Grove’s Dictionaries, Inc. The Grove Dictionary of Art Online. New York, NY: Grove’s Dictionaries, Inc., 1999,

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von, Goethe repeats his assertion in other texts, for instance his Proserpina. See Erich Trunz, “Die Kupferstiche zu den ‘Lebenden Bildern’ in den Wahlverwandtschaften.” Karl August Böttiger, “Plastisch-mimische Darstellungen.” Abend-Zeitung, 14 and 15 January 1818. Karl August Böttiger, “Tableaux.” Tableaux’s mixings have led some scholars to describe them as a proto-cinematic art form. See Volker Schachenmayr, “Emma Lyon, the ‘Attitude,’ and Goethean Performance Theory.” New Theatre Quarterly 8 (1997): 11. The Goethe passage is quoted from Holmström Monodrama, 232. Citing it, Peucker links the aesthetic issue of “Zwitterwesen” to the tableaux and particularly to the figure of Ottilie (Brigitte Peucker, “The Material Image in Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften.” The Germanic Review 74.3 [1999]: 207).

GuideTheatre , Cambridge University Press.

Isaac, Peter M., Rethinking Tableaux Vivants and Triviality in the Writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johanna Schopenhauer, and Fanny Lewald, N.C.: Duke Univ Press, 2007.

Lessing, Gotthol Ephraim, Laocoön, An essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, NY: Bobbs Merrill Co., Inc.

Peirce,Charles Sanders, Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Edited by Justis Buchler NY, Dover Publications

“tableau Vivant”, “mimesis”, “appropriation”, Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989

Wertham M.D., Frederic, Seduction of the Innocent. 1953 NY: Rinehart & Company.