Tableaux Vivants DesignPosted: January 25, 2015
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. The most recent heyday of the tableau vivant was the 19th century, with nude tableaux vivants or poses plastiques providing a form of erotic entertainment.
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”. This could be done as an amateur venture in a living 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 ‘educated’ their audience to understand the form taken by later magic lantern shows and perhaps 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 which is 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 engraving en grisaille. 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 vivants had a place in risqué entertainment for many years although in the early 1900s.
In the nineteenth century they took such titles as “Nymphs Bathing” and “Diana the Huntress”. Nude and semi-nude tableaux vivants were also a frequent feature of variety shows in the U.S. The Ziegfeld Follies featured tableaux vivants from 1917. The Windmill Theatre in London (1932–1964) featured nude tableaux vivants on stage; it was the first, and for many years the only venue for them in 20th century London.
Tableaux vivants were often included in fairground sideshows. Such shows had largely died out by the 1970s. Tableaux vivants remain a major attraction at the annual Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, CA.
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