Tableau vivant

Tableau vivant

Tableau vivant (plural: tableaux vivants) is French for "living picture." The term describes a striking 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. The most recent hey-day of the tableau vivant was the 19th century with virtually nude tableau vivants or "poses plastiques" providing a form of erotic entertainment.


The phrase and the practice probably began in medieval liturgical dramas such as the "Golden Mass", where on special occasions a Mass was punctuated by short dramatic scenes and tableaus. 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. [ [ Festivals in Valois France] British Library, accessed September 24th, 2007]

On a stage

Before radio, film and television, "tableaux vivants" were popular forms of entertainment. Before the age of colour 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 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).

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. 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 notorious venues were the Coal Hole in the Strand and The Cyder Cellar in Maiden Lane. In the twentieth century London the Windmill Theatre (1932-64) provided erotic entertainment in the form of nude tableax vivants on stage. Such entertainment was also to be seen at fairground sideshows (e.g.: seen in the film "A Taste of Honey"). Such shows had largely died out by the 1970s.

These "tableaux vivants" were often performed as the basis for school nativity plays in England during the Victorian period. 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).

In the early years of the 20th century the German dancer Olga Desmond caused scandals with her “Evenings of Beauty” (Schönheitsabende) in which she posed nude in "living pictures", imitating classical works of art.

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." The only time Da Vinci's "Last Supper" did not appear was when the festival's theme was Salvador Dali, in which case Dali's "Last Supper" filled the void.

Yet another "tableaux vivant"-style production called the [ Pageant of our Lord] has been held in [,_California Rolling Hills Estates, California] every spring since 1985. This production differs only in that its focus is exclusively on the life of Jesus Christ as told through religious works of art. Like the [ Pageant of the Masters] , this production relies on hundreds of volunteers from the surrounding area and has attracted over two-hundred thousand people. It has featured art pieces such as Michelangelo Bounarroti's Pieta, Claus Sleuter's The Well of Moses, De L' Esprie's Coming Home, and many others.

In photography

"Tableau vivant" was an approach to picture-making taken up by pioneers of early fine art photography, including David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in the 1840s. Other notable examples are Oscar Gustave Rejlander's "Two Ways of Life" (1857) and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's 'Xie' work with Alexandra Kitchin such as "St. George and the Dragon" (1875). Today, the approach is exemplified by fine art photographers and artists such as Justine Kurland, Roger Ballen, Jan Saudek, Sandy Skoglund, Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall and Bernard Faucon. It has also influenced current trends in photocompositing. [ [] Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre ISBN 1858943280]

Pictures of this sort are sometimes casually called "staged photography," but this is an imprecise term – since the simple posing of fashion models in the street is also 'staged photography'. "Tableau vivant" is a more precise term to use, if the staged picture obviously draws on the traditions and conventions of either the theatre or painting. Observe also that early photography involved exposure times in the minutes, so that there was the need to hold a pose.

In film and television

* D.W. Griffith used tableaux to emphasize dramatic moments in "A Corner in Wheat". Derek Jarman used the technique for some of his art films, as did Peter Greenaway.

* Jean-Luc Godard, in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, used in 1972 the tableau setting for the entire factory scene in "Tout va bien". Nonetheless, his 1982 "Passion" features perhaps some of the most beautiful tableaux vivants present in cinema, and constitutes in itself a masterpiece that explores the very nature of cinema.

* In television, the episode "The Festival of Living Art" of the American drama "Gilmore Girls" featured a series of tableaux recreating famous works such as Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper".

* "Mrs Henderson Presents" was a 2005 film starring Dame Judi Dench as Laura Henderson, the eccentric previous owner of London's infamous Windmill Theatre. The theater gained notoriety for featuring nude tableaux, as a way of avoiding laws forbidding girls dancing or otherwise moving whilst in a state of undress.

* In the episode entitled "In God We Trust" of season 1 of television series "Arrested Development", the Living Classics Pageant is a popular social event that focuses on tableaux to recreate famous works of art.

* In Gus Van Sant's 1991 film 'My Own Private Idaho', sex scenes are constructed as a series of tableaux vivants.

See also

* Living statue
* Agalmatophilia
* Windmill Theatre
* Eve Sussman
* The Rape of the Sabine Women (film)


External links

* (1860 text describing how to produce Tableaux Vivants)
* [ Kate Matthews Collection] (Photograph collection includes 83 examples of tableaux vivants)

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Tableau vivant — (pintura viviente) es una expresión francesa para definir la representación por un grupo de actores o modelos de una obra pictórica preexistente o inédita. Su plural es tableaux vivants. El tableau vivant fue una forma de entretenimiento que tuvo …   Wikipedia Español

  • Tableau vivant — Ta bleau vi vant ; pl. {Tableaux vivants}. [F.] Same as {Tableau}, n., 2. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • tableau vivant — [tȧ blō vē vän′] n. pl. tableaux vivants [tȧ blō vē vän′] [Fr, living tableau] a representation of a scene, picture, etc. by a person or group in costume, posing silently without moving …   English World dictionary

  • Tableau vivant — ● Tableau vivant disposition de personnages immobiles sur une scène évoquant une peinture ou une sculpture …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Tableau vivant — Un tableau vivant est une représentation figée exécutée par des acteurs ou des amateurs, costumés pour la circonstance. On peut aujourd hui prendre une photographie d un tableau vivant, mais la pratique est bien antérieure à l apparition des… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Tableau vivant — Ta|bleau* vi|vant [tablovi vã] das; s s [tablovi vã], x s [tablovi vã] (meist Plur.) <aus gleichbed. fr. tableau vivant> (veraltet) lebendes Bild, von Personen dargestellte Szene …   Das große Fremdwörterbuch

  • tableau vivant —    (tah BLOH vee VANH) [French: living picture] A silent representation of a famous painting, scene, or historical event by performers who are appropriately costumed and posed.    one segment of the audience presented a tableau vivant of the… …   Dictionary of foreign words and phrases

  • tableau vivant — [ˌtabləʊ vi:vɒtableau vivant] noun (plural tableaux vivants pronunciation same) a silent and motionless group of people arranged to represent a scene. Origin Fr., lit. living picture …   English new terms dictionary

  • tableau vivant — /tann bloh vee vahonn /, pl. tableaux vivants /tann bloh vee vahonn /. French. tableau (def. 3). [lit., living picture] * * * …   Universalium

  • tableau vivant* — ta•bleau vi•vant [[t]ta bloʊ viˈvɑ̃[/t]] n. pl. ta•bleaux vi•vants [[t]ta bloʊ viˈvɑ̃[/t]] French. fot tableau 3) • Etymology: lit., living picture …   From formal English to slang