In Ben Shahn’s grisly painting The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931–32), a trio of stone-faced Massachusetts bureaucrats stands over the corpses of two Italian-American anarchistst recently executed on dubious murder charges. For a friend of mine, the deathly history painting suggested the opportunity for some lively quarantine family fun. She restaged the composition as a tableau vivant. In an image of the result she posted online, she and her young daughter (joined by their cat in the tell-tale red collar of Shahn’s central figure) don mustaches and dark clothes while presiding over stuffed animals–cum–martyred radicals in storage boxes repurposed as coffins.
Tableaux vivants, literally living pictures, have become a popular shelter-in-place pastime, driven by museum hashtags, like #gettychallenge, that prompt people to re-create iconic masterpieces and post their versions online alongside the originals. With museums and galleries in the United States shuttered, tableaux vivants keep people connected to art in an immediate, physical way. Though the results are viewable on Instagram and Twitter, the process of staging a tableau also represents something of a counterweight to the torrents of instantly accessible digital content that museums have churned out in recent weeks. Why rely on a virtual experience of art when you can be the image yourself?
Contemporary tableaux vivants revive a practice that originated among the Enlightenment-era aristocracy and then peaked in popularity in the nineteenth century as a parlor game designed to instill players with an appreciation for Art. Instead of prim Victorian moralizing, my friend’s image offers the irony of bringing life and innocence into Shahn’s visual condemnation of state brutality. But even with the lighthearted tone, the tableau amplifies rather than diminishes the gravity of the painting. Tableaux vivants may be relevant again today precisely because they offer a way, however indirect, to connect the experience of isolated life indoors to the dread outside.
On a formal level, Shahn’s angular modernist composition lends itself well to clunky living room constructions, but the paintings most often pantomimed in recent weeks tend to be instantly recognizable masterpieces of Western art. Lap dogs perform as the Christ child, and average adults pose as so many tormented Jesuses. Lots of people have cast themselves or their pets as Girls with Pearl Earrings. For some users, the museum challenge is an opportunity to send nudes under the guise of a quasi-sophisticated cultural exercise. (The Birth of Venus appears to be as popular a model now as it was for Victorian teens in the 1860s.) The medium also affords genuine opportunities for education: Opera singer and writer Peter Brathwaite has highlighted African diaspora figures in European and American art. And while figurative paintings composed in linear perspective are most readily reconstructed for the camera, tableau vivant sources also include Persian miniatures and modernist abstractions.
When it comes to assessing tableaux vivants, production value is beside the point. In fact, employing pro lighting setups to replicate chiaroscuro or real satin to evoke Renaissance finery feels almost like cheating. Ingenious substitutions count for more: the beach towel that becomes Napoleon’s flowing red cape as he crosses the Alps, the wooden ruler that becomes a ruler’s scepter. Tableaux vivants offer a home-school lesson in semiotics, with wry substitutions revealing the mechanisms of pictorial meaning.
The best pandemic tableaux vivants come from Russia, where a Facebook page devoted to art in isolation has become a clearinghouse. All the searing filicidal anguish Ilya Repin depicted in Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan (1885) comes through in an image of a man cradling a mountain bike in disrepair. One woman re-created John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52) by lying in her bathtub fully clothed and half-submerged in water. A quarantine stockpile of onions and packaged foods stands in for the riverside foliage Millais depicted in his Shakespearean scene.
In another widely circulated tableau, French health-care workers in scrubs and PPE gather around a long table to evoke Leonardo’s Last Supper. Rather than merely replicating paintings, such images transform their sources by allowing traces of the pandemic—both physical and psychic—into the scene. The playful demeanor with which the actors have adopted poses and gestures may itself be the facade, masking underlying anxiety.
In confronting the strange horror of a contemporary global pandemic, thousands have turned to models offered by classical oil paintings and five-hundred-year-old frescoes. The impulse to create a tableau vivant shares something with the efforts, now cliché, to compare dramatic journalistic photos to Renaissance paintings, and shots of deserted cities to Edward Hopper’s realist compositions. Tableaux vivants invert the logic of these memes, as individuals reverse-engineer the sources, contorting their bodies to a template: the visual equivalent of karaoke or lip syncing. (In fact, there is a good chance of encountering social media tableaux vivants as part of a feed that includes clips from TikTok.)
While not exactly cool, the tableau vivant revival manages to avoid being hopelessly corny— which had been the art form’s fate for decades. In the mid- and late nineteenth century, well-heeled young people in the United States turned to Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine for inspiration on how to pantomime a scene. While the ultimate purpose was to engender “a love for and appreciation of art,” as one writer put it in 1860, the activity also entailed shedding restrictive clothing in favor of flowing classical robes. At a socially restrictive time, tableaux vivants struck a delicate balance between homework and transgression.
Over the years, the practice stagnated, losing whatever rebellious edge it might have had. The annual Pageant of the Masters, part of the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach, California, has kept the flame of Victorian seriousness alive since 1932. The Orange Country institution features lavish productions in which dozens of heavily made-up performers arrange themselves on, in, and around elaborately constructed stage sets to replicate the work of canonical artists. (The Pageant’s excess was skewered in an episode of “Arrested Development,” with the hapless George Michal Bluth posing in denim cutoffs in the role of Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.) If the event goes ahead this summer as planned, the theme will be “Made in America.” The playbill promises dozens of living compositions, from Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) to Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) to The Last Supper, a virtuoso rendition which concludes the proceedings every year. The Pageant of the Masters’ organizers describe their work in an earnest tone, presenting the event as an opportunity to learn about key figures from art history in a beachside community that had little access to original works back in the 1930s. Still, there are aspects of the production—the caked make-up, the flamboyant posing, the hints of nudity—that can’t always be contained within an educational mission. Despite the noble aims and prim appearances, the specter of camp travesty haunts the Pageant of the Masters.
The relationship between high art and tableaux vivants has always been marked by tension and ambiguity. As Caroline van Eck argues in her 2015 book Art, Agency, and Living Presence, the rise in popularity of tableaux vivants among the European elite—Goethe famously chronicled the moment in his novel Elective Affinities (1809)—coincides with the birth of the modern museum. If the museum codified a detached, rational mode of viewing aesthetic objects, the tableau vivant reverses this ideal: an embodied experience of art that inherently celebrates excess, drama, irony, and play. Just when the earliest art historians sought to analyze distinctions between artistic mediums, tableaux vivants offered a motley art form, closer to theater (and cinema, as later critics would observe) than to the paintings and sculptures that players sought to replicate.
Today, digital technology puts new kinds of pressure on the conventions of viewing art in museums. Rather than merely looking at a painting in a gallery, any visitor with a smartphone can now pose with the work and record the moment for posterity. (In pre-COVID times, museum Instagram tags featured numerous images of people posing in front of a figurative artworks while replicating depicted gestures.) Though museum selfies have become a convention in their own way, they are also frequently derided as narcissistic and anti-intellectual, with the screen mediating an experience of art in a gallery that was once supposed to offer direct communion. But as Rob Horning notes in an article in Even magazine, “this critique sets up an untenable separation between our screens and our lives.” Courting mass “engagement” with art—an important part of many institutions’ missions—means accommodating audiences glued to their devices. “In the past two decades, museums largely moved from presenting their collections to facilitating relational experiences,” Horning writes, “and now their attempts to capitalize on the popularity of mobile phones and social media are causing a new shift: from orchestrated physical togetherness to an aloneness together.” Tableaux vivants shared on social media represent the culmination of trends that were already transforming how museums engage viewers. But this push for “relational experiences” also leads to outcomes that are in many ways antithetical to the traditional museum project. The viewer who once came to the gallery to look at art is now a producer, placing themselves at the center of art appreciation. Digital reproductions of masterpieces come to look less like sanctified images belonging to a rarefied Culture and held as property by wealthy institutions, and more like schema that can be reconfigured by the public, their essential elements swapped in and out—or infused with life.
The pandemic quickens a shift toward “aloneness together,” but it also clarifies which images have the power to circulate widely. In a time before viable reproductions of artworks, tableaux vivants were a medium for transmission, giving visual form to written descriptions of paintings by critics like Diderot. Today, the typical format of posting a tableau vivant alongside its source does more than acknowledge the inspiration: the juxtaposition also reads as a head-to-head challenge. The worldwide popularity of the tableau vivant trend suggests which side is winning. Any common reproduction of The Last Supper might be too banal to share—a reproduction of an overfamiliar work in a sea of identical reproductions. But an image of doctors on the front line reanimating a scene redolent of death and betrayal? That goes viral.
Still, the substitution of living figures for a painting requires a trade-off. While making a painting appear half-alive, the participants in the exercise risk appearing half-dead themselves, subsumed by the static image. One nineteenth-century critic described Goethe’s tableau vivant scenes as having been conjured by Medusa’s head, freezing the actors in place. Tableaux vivants have drawn comparison to the uncanny of wax museums and melancholy death masks. Roland Barthes characterized photography in general as “a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.” While tableaux vivants have offered cover for nudity and a space for relaxing social mores, the practice has also afforded opportunities to reflect on horrors that could not otherwise be acknowledged in refined company. During the years in which Goethe was writing, Classical scenes of betrayal and murder offered an indirect outlet for anxieties about the French Revolution.
Living figures may make familiar images more compelling, but pathos is the most effective social media accelerant. If fidelity and production value matter little in a tableau vivant, then intensity of feeling is key to the format’s success at communicating in an isolated world. Homemade tableaux are steeped in irony, of course, but how could it be otherwise? Those of us who aren’t on the front lines of this pandemicta are witnessing its horrors at a distance and through screens. An art of guises and poses, of shared images and collective experience, of half-death and half-life, may be the ideal format for confronting this strange trauma in isolation.