November 26: Tableaux

26November 26: We tend to regard appropriation in photography as a postmodern phenomenon.

Of course one has only to think of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) to conjure images of her servant Mary Hillier as Raphaelesque Madonna and to realise that the impulse to imitate, or directly copy, artworks in other media is as old as photography itself and seen here in bodies of work by Guido Rey (1861–1935), Richard Polak (1870–1956), Carlos Ducoin (†1917), Josef Jindřich Šechtl (1877–1954), Jeff Wall (*1946), Anne Ferran (*1949), Tom Hunter (*1965) and in a current exhibition by Nicolas Dhervillers (*1981).


Examples abound in Aaron Scharf’s comprehensive Art and Photography of 1968, 109 editions of which have been published between 1968 and 2005 in 4 languages, and which is still in print.

art & photo
Aaron Scharf (1968) Art and Photography, hardback first edition.

It was the outcome of his doctorate at the Courtauld Institute which he undertook on migration from his native America where he was subject to persecution as a socialist. His dissertation and book investigate the links between painting (and other artforms) and photography, and evidence for artists using photography for reference and other purposes, as well as the way photographers with aspirations as artists referred to painting in their work. His was among the first studies on the history of our medium at a doctoral level and opened new field of art history just as artists were reincorporating the medium of photography into their work. Scharf also popularised his study and discoveries in producing innovative thematic educational videos on the history of photography and its relation to society for the Open University and writings in Creative Camera [see theWikipedia entry on Scharf on which I have been the initial and major author].

Some of Cameron’s work may be considered photographed examples of the tableau vivant, literally a living painting, a parlour game or public display using live models in costume. It was easily adapted to  early photography as an ideal manner of artistic picture-making well suited to the slow exposures and cumbersome equipment of the medium in this period.

It is described at length by Mrs Severn in The Lady Companion; or, Sketches of Life, Manners, and Morals, at the Present Day (1854) who defines tableau vivant, the purpose of which, she writes, is:

to arrange scientifically a combination of natural objects, so as to make a good picture, according to the rules of art. 

 A tableau vivant is literally what its name imports— a living picture composed of living persons; and, when skilfully arranged and seen at a proper distance, it produces all the effect of a real picture. 

Severn goes on to describe at length the various tricks that might be employed to make a convincing tableau vivant, including the use of strategically placed lights, cleverly shaded to project shadows of the original painting, posing the performance in a doorway to form a frame and keep distance from the audience that would duplicate painterly perspective, and the use of gauzes, black or white stretched over the doorframe in imitation of canvas texture and to blur mundane detail.

Guido Rey (c1910) Costume Scene Platinum print

Today, in 1861, is the birthdate of Guido Rey, a man wealthy enough to pursue photography at leisure and to travel, made this series of tableaux based closely on paintings by Vermeer and de Hooch. Using props appropriate to the period of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ from his own possessions and borrowed from friends, he constructed scenes that nevertheless have a nineteenth century spirit that is probably more apparent with time.

Guido Rey 1910 platinum print
Johannes Vermeer The Glass of Wine 1658–1660

It is apt that it should be Vermeer whom photographers like Guido Rey and Richard Polak (who worked 1912-1915 in Rotterdam) copied so fastidiously, given the discoveries of Philip Steadman and others of convincing proof of his use of a lens in making his paintings, since logically that would account for the effectiveness of a photographic reconstruction of his paintings.

The lesser-known Carlos Ducoin lived in Lille in northern France and was a hobbyist painter. A baker, he probably took up photography after he retired in 1900. His ‘living sculptures’ do look as if they have been dipped in a dough and dusted with flour, especially in the flat daylight studio lighting he used, but are creditable examples of this genre, though they might these days be a cliché found amongst any city’s ‘living statue’ buskers.

Carlos Ducoin 1900-1914 Tableau vivant Contemporary print from original glass negative
Jan Vitezslav Dusek (Czech-1891-1966) Sokol athlete

Josef Jindřich Šechtl (1877 – 1954) had a wide variety of interests in photography, including portrait photography and photojournalism. His fine art photography is pictorialist, including his use of the bromoil process.

He worked from the Šechtl & Voseček studio after he inherited it from his father. Their photographs are not usually signed so it is unclear which photographs taken during 1897–1911 were taken by Josef Jindřich or his father Ignác Šechtl (1840–1911).

It was due to Josef Jindřich that the studio started to publish large photo essays on important events, and sold postcards of them, including earliest documented the Sokol gymnastic festival (Slet) in which athletes performed synchronised displays. An associated series of images of ‘live statues’ were arranged for Sokol in 1911 with the sculptor Jan Vítězslav Dušek (1891-1966). The liveliness of these tableaux is due no doubt to the expert gymnasts who were the models, and they are reminiscent of the energy of La Danse, an 1868 sculpture by French artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in Echaillon marble that appears to burst from the façade of the Opera Garnier in Paris.

It would be remiss not to mention Canadian Jeff Wall‘s (*1946) tableaux as prime examples of their application in the postmodern era. In employing the large format view camera he should not be mistaken for a revivalist returning to the kind of historicism we see in Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Rejlander (1813–1875).  Wall’s meticulous planning in re-siting narrative scenes from artists as varied as Hokusai and Manet develops a complex of references that cross between contemporary life and the pregnant moments from art history. His large scale light box display invites the kind of extended contemplation usually devoted to painting.

Jeff Wall is discussed exhaustively (overbearingly, I would argue) by Michael Fried in his 2008 book Why photography matters as art as never before (New Haven : Yale University Press) so I would prefer to illustrate this development in postmodernism with with work from an exhibition of Selected Works by Nicolas Dhervillers showing now until January 27, 2018 Galerie HiltawskyTucholsky Straße 41, 10117 Berlin and soon from December 1 at Galerie Bacqueville32 rue Thiers, 59000 Lille until 20 january 2018 and Scenes on the Death of Nature by Australian Anne Ferran.

Dhervillers is prodigious in his output, and one series, his Hommages, directly appropriates from painting. He uses images gleaned from Google searches, so what could be a better example to begin with than this homage;

Nicolas Dhervillers (2012) Hommage à Millet, from the Hommages series, 2012-2013.

Three somehow familiar figures appear on a distant hillside, dwarfed by the surrounding scene of overgrown pasture. Over the rise, a storm approaches out of an ominous sky, but late sunlight still reaches low through the wild vegetation.

Jean-François Millet (1875) Des glaneuses (aka Les glaneuses), oil on canvas, 835 x 1100 cm.

Suddenly we recognise Millet’s well-known gleaners, stooping women, the rural poor, allowed in to the field to retrieve the last heads of grain after the harvesters of the seigneur de la propriété have passed.

Our momentary disorientation of memory is accountable; the three figures have been reversed in order to fit the direction of light  – an artificial, digital light – its contrast heightened so that they fit their new surroundings, which are verdant and recently drenched, where the one from which they have been transplanted is dusty with the dry haze of the fag-end of summer. The rear figure becomes eclipsed in dark shadow, swallowed up in this new drama in which their gleaning serves no purpose more intense than that of Sunday walkers stooping to pick up bits of broken pottery from amongst the grass.

Necessarily the figures of the peasants are small because in general web images have nothing like the resolution required to make prints of more than a metre in size, and as painted elements the reduction in scale hides the transition from one medium to another.

There are more images here than the landscape and the gleaners. The landscape is orchestrated from a number of shots assembled into a painterly whole, cinematic, or more like a constructed stage-set into which a brilliant lighting designer and technicians have cast their magic.  Dhervillers admits to paying tribute in his work also to Jeff Wall whose work he finds inspiring, though his own is more dramatic, less calculated, than Wall’s;

I studied cinema first, then theatre, and then I came to Paris to take a Masters in Photography and mixed media. I studied with Mr Jean Claude Moineau, my “chief” in terms of theory.

Indeed, Dhervillers’ images might well be manifestations of conceptual, installation and performance artist and theorist Jean Claude Moineau‘s catalogue essay Paysage avec photocopieur (Landscape with Photocopier) for James Durand’s Bubble art event held at the Canon Centre on the Champs Elysees in Paris from May 12 to August 30, 1992. The gleaners are joined in other Hommage imagery by men from a James Tissot, a boy by Vassili Perov,William Bouguereau’s girls and baby, a woman from Jules Bastien-Lepage or a fawn taken from a work by Gustave Courbet. All are displaced, disoriented to find themselves in a new land, a new era, and consequently they transmit a lonely melancholy.

Dhervillers describes his search for a technique that gives an impression of being ‘outside time’;

It’s not about a simple photograph but rather a photograph that mixes different mediums that I particularly like: theatre for the positions and attitudes of the characters, movies for the light, photography for the idea of controlling the framework, [digital] painting for the final rendering.

Anne Ferran‘s Scenes on the Death of Nature toured Australia from 1986 until 2006, its creation preceding the advent of digital imaging. It consists of six large format black and white prints of intertwined laconic young women draped across one another and dressed in long flowing plain white garments, with the appearance of neoclassical sculptures. Here, as in Wall’s and Dhervillers’ works, can be read clear reference to art history, but in this case the reference is not specific and is deflected by the works’ harsh black frames that incarcerate the figures and their psychological lassitude.

Ferran’s models were her own daughter and friends. They are quite easily identified as well-groomed and middle class young women who might look as if they were recovering from a sleepover, though the lack of clues from their dress charges the imagery with further ambivalence. Indeed it is the performative aspect of tableaux vivant and our consciousness that the subjects stand in for other subjects of historical or artistic interest that makes the collaborative effort of the genre engaging. Ferran’s subsequent concentration on the female convict, which has national colonialist relevance, provides a retrospective interpretation of these landmark images in Australian photographic history.

Anne Ferran (1980-86) Scenes on the death of nature, scene I, Gelatin silver print
Anne Ferran (1980-86) Scenes on the death of nature, scene V, Gelatin silver print
Anne Ferran (1980-86) Scenes on the death of nature, scene II, Gelatin silver print

It is the socio-political potential of narrative images, particularly those that redeploy art history that is still of current interest, and for me especially that of British photographer Tom Hunter (*1965). He lived from 1997 in a street in Hackney, a London suburb famous in 1970s photography for Jo Spence and the Hackney Flashers feminist collective. There he occupied squats for 15 years along with almost a hundred others, a location the Hackney Gazette  described as ‘The Ghetto’, ‘a crime-ridden derelict ghetto, a cancer- a blot on the landscape’. As part of the fight against eviction, Hunter produced a series of works Persons Unknown that refer to eviction orders they received, the postures and gestures referencing Vermeer’s paintings which dignify the squatter community and their struggle.



His The Way Home (2000) makes direct reference to the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais’ (1829-1896) Ophelia (1851-2), itself a visualisation of Shakespeare’s tragic character in Hamlet. Hunter uses an overgrown pond beside a canal to pay homage to a young woman, lost on her way home in the dark after a party, who drowned. Because the image is so easily recognised from a well known painting it cannot be mistaken as documentary, but becomes allegorical in scope, contemporary beyond the retelling of an old fable, but enhanced by the allusion to enable a recognition of the symbolic and epic qualities of everyday life.

Tom Hunter (2000), The Way Home

The long career of the tableau vivant has not exhausted its possibilities. It speaks a common language to lovers of art, but especially to those sensitive to art history and future uses of photography.

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