Tableau Vivant

tableau by michael arthur

Tableau [ta-blohvivant [vee-vahn] (French for ‘living picture’) is 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/photography, and as such it has been of interest to modern photographers.

In the 19th century, virtually nude tableaux vivants or ‘poses plastiques’ provided a form of erotic entertainment.

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.

Before radio, film and television, tableaux vivants were popular forms of entertainment. Before the age of color 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 theater stage, one following another, usually to tell a story without requiring all the usual trappings of a live theater performance. They thus ‘educated’ their audience to understand the form taken by later Victorian and Edwardian era magic lantern shows (early image projectors), 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.

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).

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.’

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