The art form of tableau vivant and its history and influence

Hope Brusstar, Managing Editor

On Thursday, visiting lecturer Dr. Anna Mecugni gave a talk entitled “The Genre of Tableau Vivant: Rediscovering Italian Art and Film of the 1960s and 1970s.” Her presentation covered relevant parts of modern Italian culture some of her own research.

First, she introduced the genre of tableau vivant, which is French for “living picture.” Pieces in this genre are typically photographs of people posing in costume to portray an event or work of art. The art form has been used since the late 1980s, and it involves a range of artists mimicking other artists directly, often in jest.

As an example, Mecugni displayed UNO faculty member Tony Campbell and UNO graduate Matt Vis’ 2012 “The Raft,” a tableau vivant reproduction of Théodore Céricault’s 1818 “The Raft of the Medusa.”

“Tableau is generally considered to be a theatrical genre, but I argue for [it] to be considered an artistic genre,” she said.

Among her research contributions, therefore, she lists her support of reframing the genre of tableau vivant.

In her research, she studies the current tableau vivant trends and tries to retrace their pre-1980s history, attempting to find precursors to the art form. In doing this, she identifies an overlooked trend in Italian art and film in the 1960s and 1970s, and connects the visual arts to film.

“Film is the [future] of this art form,” she stated.

As for its past, its direct roots take place in religious folk theater, where scenes like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ are reenacted even in present day, in geographically isolated parts of Europe and southern Italy.

Tableau vivant otherwise occurred as private entertainment for the wealthy, emerging in the second half of the 18th century. As it began to come about for public entertainment as well, the art form merged some boundaries between elite and popular culture.

Mecugni then discussed what might have brought about the Italian revival of the tableau vivant. When experienced an industrial economic boom between the 1950s and 1970s, its society received American influence through its new television sets and acquired the ability to mass-produce high-quality art prints.

As a result, a new kind of image culture arose. “Kitsch” a word appearing from the German for “to coat, to smear,” arose to describe once-pretty items that have become so mass-produced as to become cheap. Mecugni gave printing the Mona Lisa on a teacup as an example.

According to her, there occured a “blurring of boundaries between original and replica, reality and representation.”

Mecugni also gave ample illustration of the types of works her research covered.

She showed her 30-some audience members a short, comical clip from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “La Ricotta” (1963), a low-budget film including a narrator voicing over a tableau vivant scene of the crucifixion. Its purposefully failed seriousness coupled with the actor’s gaffs are both humorous and informative.

It turns out that failed seriousness, combined with kitsch, brought out another important art movement at about the same time. Camp, Mecugni says, is “a conscious use of kitsch, a self-conscious response to a culture in which kitsch is ubiquitous.” In short, this is use of irony for humor.

Said Mecugni, “Susan Sontag acknowledged that homosexuals had more or less invented camp.” She gave several male artists’ reenactments of popular art, such as Luigi Ontani’s crossdressing tableau vivant pictures of Francisco Goya’s “Clothed Maja” and “Nude Maja.”

Thus, argues Mecugni, the culture that brought about tableau vivant blurred not only the lines between socioeconomic classes and the lines between originality and replication, but also the lines between gender identities.

For those interested in more tableau vivant, Mecugni informed the audience that a reenactment of the Dred Scott 1811 Slave Rebellion would occur in New Orleans in the fall. The effort is still in progress, and more information is at