Joanna Barck

Tableaux Vivants. Parlour Games and Anachronism in Film

Lecture: 25 Sept 2008

This lecture investigates the role of paintings in feature films while shedding light on the long-forgotten phenomena of "tableaux vivants", or the practise of using actors and props to re-enact famous images. Inherent to the idea of tableaux vivants was the doubling of an already existing reality, appropriating the painted model as accurately as possible, and the shift from imitation of nature to imitation of art. A popular leisure pastime in the 19th century, this parlour game nearly faded into oblivion before it was rediscovered by film directors and video artists, who seized on either an image’s particular spatial and temporal structures or its choreography of colour in film. The question of "tableaux vivants" in film focuses on a system of pictorial communication regarded as ‘secondary’; it draws on codes of meaning set outside the filmic system. The efficacy of kind of secondary visual system lay in its expansion of filmic aesthetic itself, shattering the traditional conventions of film, moving images, narrative flow, etc. The awkwardness of a tableau rendered on film acts prevents its degeneration into pure spectacle. As a filmic, "tableaux vivant" image, a painting’s potential is revealed in its disruption.

To explore this potential, the director would have to preserve the pictorial difference of the painting while providing this alienated system with room to develop. With the productive surplus generated by "tableaux vivants" in feature films comes the danger of either divorcing the secondary image completely, thereby becoming an autonomous, independent element or the subject’s inability to step out of its assigned niche to occupy the film. Doing so builds a tension between various pictorial systems, a tension that remains productive until the situation is dissolved to benefit the image. The older pictorial system appears the more powerful one, a thesis explored further in the lecture. The lecture pursued these anachronisms with two examples of films from different genres Giulio Antamoro’s Cristo (1916) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s La Ricotta (1962) in an attempt to clarify the contemporary relevance of this media phenomenon.

Film examples presented during the lecture:

Giulio Antamoro
1916, 95’, b/w, silent

This example of early Italian cinema tells the life of Jesus from annunciation to resurrection in three parts, each of which is described as a "secret". Italian director Giulio Antamoro began preparations for the film as early as 1914, hiring and filming more than two thousand extras for the mass scenes with special effects all of which were shot on location at the original sites in Egypt and Palestine, among others. Shot as a series of so-called tableaux vivants, the film draws direct reference to pictorial, visual arts motifs. Cristo theatrically re-stages, for example, The Annunciation by Giovanni da Fiesole (Fra Angelico), The Transfiguration by Raphael, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci or The Removal from Cross by Rembrandt as a play. The film premiered 1916 at the Teatro Augusteo in Rome, in the presence of Queen Elena and other prominent guests.

Pier Paolo Pasolini
La Ricotta
1962, 40’, b/w and colour, sound

La Ricotta takes place on the set of a monumental Passion film. An extra greedily gobbles down a huge piece of Italian soft cheese just before his take as good thief at Calvary, then dies on the cross in the middle of the shoot from exhaustion and a massive stomach cramp. In this short film, Pasolini casts a satiric gaze on the world of film and the relationship between the first and third worlds. For the very first time, he used a specific Kodak colour film to render the colours seen in paintings by painters such as Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo da Pontormo. Despite the many prominent film personalities with roles in the film, including Orson Welles, Mario Cipriani and Laura Betti, Pasolini’s long-time associate, La Ricotta was confiscated by authorities and Pasolini was arrested for insulting the Church charges for which he was eventually acquitted in 1964. La Ricotta belongs to the larger, episodic film Ro.Go.Pa.G. (1963), a collaborative project directed by Roberto Rosselini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ugo Gregoretti.