My high school art history teacher had a method of getting students to engage with paintings in a way that I found compelling, meaningful and a lot of fun. For the end of semester review, he passed out slides with figurative paintings to individuals and groups. Our assignment was to take 15 minutes to examine the work, and recreate it by posing as the people depicted in the artwork, using only the few props available to us in the painting studio. Each student presented the pose to the class, and we’d compare the student’s pose to the projected slide. I didn’t know it then, but we were doing an old fashioned type of theater or parlor game, called a tableau vivant. Doing that tableau vivant taught me what contrapposto felt like. It allowed me to embody the lithe grace of Donatello’s David. I looked at the work of art differently when I was considering how to recreate it.
A tableau vivant is a “living picture;” a recreation or reinterpretation of a work of art by people posing in a mute, motionless charade. It was a popular form of entertainment in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as evidenced by this chapter of a manual for dances and parties from the library’s collection, An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920.
A quick search of Chronicling America shows plenty of tablueax vivants documented on the society pages, as war relief fundraisers, or as amusements at parties and other events.
The entertainment was popular enough to be parodied on the cover of Puck. Here we see a circa 1900 reproduction of Jules Bastien-Lepage's 1879 painting Joan of Arc.
and a 1918 New York Times rotograveur picture section showing a tableau vivant given at St. Francis Xavier College with Laurette Taylor as Joan of Arc, clearly in imitation of the Lepage painting.
And finally, the cover of Puck, showing Teddy Roosevelt, from 1912
I recently read an excellent article on using tableaux vivants as a pedagogical tool. Bringing Students into the Picture: Teaching with Tableaux Vivants by Ellery Foutch is available here as a free download: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/ahpp/vol2/iss2/3/. Two shorter articles, one from Art Museum Teaching, and one from the Yale National Initiative, also provide information and inspiration for classroom or gallery use. While these how-to articles give good descriptions of how this active form of engagement with art connects with kinesthetic and visual learners, Foutch’s piece also discusses how doing creative reinterpretations with tableau vivants allows the class to deal with social justice issues, and identity. The article describes a longer project than the quick charade my teacher assigned. It includes group work, research, and performance. It gets students to go beyond looking and describing, and onto interpreting and creating something new. Exciting stuff!
The way Foutch structures the tableaux vivants project is similar to the TPS method: first students examine the object, make observations, reflect, and ask questions. Then, they use these observations, reflections, and questions to inform their research. By creating their own interpretation of the work of art, they are exercising critical thinking skills, and making connections between history and their own experiences.
There are contemporary artists who use similar modes of interpretation and recreation in their work to delve into identity and social issues. Kehinde Wiley uses imperial history painting, such as in his Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005
https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/169803 to explore issues of race, masculinity, fame, and imperialism. (for more see http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/recognize/paintings.html) Cindy Sherman’s history portraits show her embodying old paintings in discomforting ways. https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/the-multiple-worlds-of-cindy-shermans-history-portraits-2/
Part of the pleasure of viewing a tableau vivant is the small thrill of recognition when the viewer recognizes the reference image being enacted. There’s also the spectacle of a body posed in stillness -- the kitschy version might be the living statue street performer. For students who are kinesthetic or visual learners, doing a tableau vivant could be an effective strategy. Have you done tableaux vivants in the classroom? How did your students engage with the work? How did different learners react?