Tableau vivant (plural: tableaux vivants) means "living picture". The term, borrowed from the French language, describes a 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 or photography, and as such it has been of interest to modern photographers. The most recent heyday of the tableau vivant was the 19th century, with virtually nude tableaux vivants or poses plastiques providing a form of erotic entertainment.
Occasionally, a Mass was punctuated with 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 manner of modern street entertainers, but in larger groups, and mounted on elaborate temporary stands along the path of the main procession.
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Before radio, film and television, tableaux vivants were popular forms of entertainment, even in frontier towns. Before the age of color reproduction of images, the tableau vivant (often abbreviated to tableau) was sometimes used to recreate paintings "on stage", based on an etching or sketch of a 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).
These tableaux vivants were often performed as the basis for school nativity plays in England during the Victorian period; the custom is still practiced at Loughborough High School (believed to be one of England's oldest grammar schools for girls). 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).
Theatrical censorship in Britain and the US forbade actresses to move when nude or semi-nude on stage, so tableaux vivant had a place in risqué entertainment for many years although in the early 1900s, German dancer Olga Desmond appeared in Schönheitsabende ("Evenings of Beauty") in which she posed nude in "living pictures", imitating classical works of art.
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 venues were the "Coal Hole" in the Strand and the "Cyder Cellar" in Maiden Lane. Nude and semi-nude tableaux vivant were also a frequent feature of variety shows in the U.S.: first on Broadway in New York, then elsewhere in the country. The Ziegfeld Follies featured tableaux vivant from 1917. The Windmill Theatre in London (1932–1964) featured nude tableaux vivant on stage; it was the first, and for many years the only venue for them in 20th century London.
Tableaux vivant were often included in fairground sideshows (as seen in the film A Taste of Honey). Such shows had largely died out by the 1970s.
Jean-François Chevrier was the first to coin the term Tableau in relation to a form of art photography, which began in the 1970s and 80s in an essay titled The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography in 1989. The initial translation of this text substitutes the English word 'Picture' for the French word 'Tableau'. However Michael Fried retains the French word 'Tableau' when referring to Chevrier's essay, because according to Fried (2008), there is no direct translation into English for the French word Tableau. Picture is similar, however "…it lacks the connotations of constructedness, of being the product of an intellectual act that the French word carries." (p. 146) Other texts and Clement Greenberg's theory of Medium Specificity also cover this topic.
The key characteristics of the contemporary photographic tableau according to Chevrier are, firstly:
"They are designed and produced for the wall. summoning a confrontational experience on the part of the spectator that sharply contrasts with the habitual processes of appropriation and projection whereby photographic images are normally received and "consumed" (p. 116)
By this Chevrier notes that scale and size is obviously important if the pictures are to 'hold the wall'. But size has another function; it distances you from the object. It makes you stand back from the picture to take it all in. This confrontational experience, Fried notes, is actually quite a large break from the conventional reception of photography which up to that point was often consumed in books or magazines.
The tableau has its roots in pictorialist photography (see Alfred Stieglitz) and not the Tableau Vivant. Pictorialism, according to Jeff Wall could be seen as an attempt by photographers to unsuccessfully imitate painting:
"Pictorialist photography was dazzled by the spectacle of Western painting and attempted, to some extent, to imitate it in acts of pure composition. Lacking the means to make the surface of its pictures unpredictable and important, the first phase of Pictorialism, Stieglitz's phase, emulated the fine graphic arts, re-invented the beautiful look, set standards for gorgeousness of composition, and faded." (p. 75)
Pictorialism failed according to Wall because photographers lacked the means to make their surfaces unpredictable. However Photography did have the ability to become unpredictable and spontaneous. This was achieved by making photographs, related to the inherent capabilities of the camera itself. And this Wall argues was a direct result of photo-journalism and the media/culture industries.
"By divesting itself of the encumbrances and advantages inherited from older art forms, reportage, or the spontaneous fleeting aspect of the photographic image pushes toward a discovery of qualities apparently intrinsic to the medium, qualities that must necessarily distinguish the medium from others and through the self-examination of which it can emerge as a modernist art on a plane with others." (p. 76-78)
The argument is that unlike most other art forms photography can profit from the capture of chance occurrences. Through this process - the 'snapshot,' the 'accidental' image - photography invents its own concept of the picture. A hybrid form of the Western Picture or pictorialist photography and the spontaneous snapshot. This is the stage whereby Wall argues that photography enters a 'modernist dialectic.' Wall claims that unpredictability is key to modern aesthetics. This new concept of the picture, which Jeff Wall proposes, with the compositional aspects of the 'Western Picture' combined with the unpredictability that the camera affords through its shutter, can be seen in the work of many contemporary photographic artists including Luc Delahaye, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Irene Caesar, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
The Tableau as a form still dominates the art photography market. As Fried notes:
"Arguably the most decisive development in the rise of the new art photography has been the emergence, starting in the late 1970s and gaining impetus in the 1980s and after, of what the French critic Jean-François Chevrier has called "The Tableau Form" (p. 143)
There is a 2014 feature film that features only tableau format called "In The Crosswinds".
- Festivals in Valois France British Library, accessed September 24th, 2007
- Ward, Tom (1975). Cowtown : an album of early Calgary. Calgary: City of Calgary Electric System, McClelland and Stewart West. p. 444. ISBN 0-7712-1012-4.
- Chevrier, Jean-François (2003) . "The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography". In Fogle, D. The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960-1982. Minneapolis: Walker Art Centre.
- Fried, M. (2008). Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.
- Chevrier, Jean-François (2006). "The Tableau and The Document of Experience". In Weski, T. Click Double Click: The Documentary Factor. Munich: Haus Der Kunst and Brussels: Centre for Fine Art.
- Wall, Jeff (1998). "Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art". In Janus, E. Veronica's Revenge: Contemporary Perspectives on Photography. Zurich: Scalo.
- Greenberg, C. (2003) . "Modernist Painting". In Harrison, C; Wood, P. Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
- Kracauer, S. (1960). Theory of film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
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