tableaux vivants


The French term, tableaux vivants (plural, tableau vivant singular) translates literally into the English language as "living pictures." The OED defines tableaux vivants as: "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." This definition is comprehensive, but dense. Tableaux vivants hover indeterminately between the living and the dead, the uncanny and the familiar, theater and painting, the moving and the motionless, three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality, presentation and representation, surprise and the expected, high art and popular entertainment, life made dead by means of stillness and dead images made alive by means of living bodies and elaborate stage effects. We can think of tableaux vivants as an elevated form of pantomime; still scenes acted out, or better, posed and staged, by live human beings before an audience meant to recognize and take delight in recognizing the source being re-presented. And the diverse nature of these sources - famous works of art, stories, poems, personalities, events - should immediately suggest to the student of media the complexity of tableaux vivants as a medium. The kind of work that "living pictures" do - that is, to make recognizable - in their re-presentation of a two-dimensional image or a three-dimensional sculpture cannot be the same. Similarly, their mediation of any type of image cannot be that same as their mediation of words. By what means, processes, codes and conventions do "living pictures" make words and images recognizable? And for what purpose?

Tableaux vivants enjoyed great popularity from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century as a tasteful1 form of entertainment, first among erudite, aristocratic circles in Europe in private, courtly settings and later diffusing more broadly to the middle and lower classes in various public and private venues in the West.2 In our contemporary world, the medium appears to us as strange and archaic (in the heavy-handed message and theatricality in Oscar Gustav Rejlander's well-known photograph, The Two Ways of Life (1857)3 [see fig. 1] or these instructions from 1867: "A programme for an evening's entertainment should consist of from five to ten designs, including varied selections of classical and domestic, serious and comic, tableaux" followed by directions for acting out scenes such as "The Grecian Flower-Girl," "Dante and Beatrice" and "The Orphan's Dream" 4) or simply as kitsch, (one thinks here of the multitude of street performers posing as motionless Egyptian pharos, "coming to life" when a coin is dropped in their baskets with an unexpected bow). Tableaux vivants are no longer a living art today, the world they inhabited in which industry was still a rival of the arts5 and not its master has passed; however, they are often revived, remembered, quoted or strategically dredged up from the past in contemporary exhibition culture. The artist Cindy Sherman, for example, masquerades as various recent and historical personalities in elaborate staged environments in her photographic self portraits.6

The way that tableaux vivants operated historically as a medium has yet to be theorized, but will doubtless prove to be a rich site for rethinking about host of questions about the nature of mediation. What is the relationship between appearance and likeness? (...these living pictures depend for their success upon the general effects of light and shade more than upon the quality of the dresses. [...] ...and there can be no doubt that the most elegant dresses of velvet and gold can, aided by the strong light of the tableaux, be equaled in richness of appearance by costumes manufactures of simple cambric and gilt paper."7) How do words and images interfere on each others terrain in the presentation of tableaux vivants? ("Appropriate poems may be read by the announcer of the tableaux, or by others, previous to their exhibition, as they pleasantly vary the entertainment and enable the audience to understand the subject more appreciably."8) What exactly is the material of this medium: the actors, their arrangement, their poses, the light which gives them their appearance?

Only a very small body of scholarship has been dedicated to this once-popular art form, the most comprehensive English-language historical survey being Kirsten Gram Holmstršm's, Monodrama, Attitudes, Tableaux vivants: studies on some trends of theatrical fashion 1770-1815 (1967).9 In this account, which tracks the early life of the medium, tableaux vivants are one of several new art forms resulting from classicizing trends in eighteenth-century theater, such as the introduction of pantomime into productions.10 While is generally thought that tableaux vivants first became fashionable after Goethe published Die Wahlverwandtshaften in 1809,"11 it seems that they in fact originated in France.12 The first documented appearance of tableaux vivants is an intrusion into theater in 1761 during the course of a performance at the ComŽdie Italienne of Les Noces d'Arlequin: "The pice de resistance occurred in the middle of the second act when the curtain was raised and the audience saw an exact copy of Greuze's painting L'AccordŽe de village..."13

The early tableaux vivants occupied a new space created between theater and painting, responding to will to composed stillness, an impulse to identify and fix the "pregnant moment." While the first instance of the hybrid medium took an extremely popular genre painting as its subject, the link between tableaux vivants and history painting was arguably even stronger. Like history painting, tableaux vivants sought to stage moments recovered and imagined from the ancient world, moments to be fixed in a particular Neo-Classical aesthetic - its colors, its lighting, its costumes, its poses.

The first tableaux vivants performed briefly the stability of painted image. The tension and interest of the medium lay in the curiousness of live, breathing, active bodies pretending to be fixed images. They were performances that occurred in real time. With the invention of photography in the nineteenth century, tableaux vivants found a new temporality. Tableaux vivants could be and were fixed, and not just reference fixity - they were performed for the camera, or created through additive montage techniques. This meeting with a new technology absolutely changed the character of tableaux vivants, by making it into an image. A photograph of a tableau vivant or a photographic tableau vivant had entirely different properties, circulation, reproducibility, relationship to its audience than the performed tableau vivant constructed of bodies, cloth and light.14

Fig. 1: Oscar Gustav Rejlander, The Two Ways of Life (1857)

Rachel Rossner
The University of Chicago :: Theories of Media :: Keywords Glossary ::  tableaux_vivants