Fashioning (Still) Lives

Michiel Simons, Still Life of Fruit with Lobster and Dead Game, 17th century. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the New Orleans Museum of Art: Bequest of Bert Piso, 81.280.

Editor's Note

We're nearly halfway through Lent. Laurence Ross looks back at the early harbinger of Carnival this year—the Creative Alliance of New Orleans’ Bal des Artistes fundraiser—and reflects on tableau vivant, still life, and being bought and sold.

I consider Oscar Wilde’s maxim, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” at the Creative Alliance of New Orleans’ Bal des Artistes, and the implied suggestion that there is an alternative to the patron-object relationship. A person can be the work of art itself, which is not synonymous with the role of the artist, but rather a conscious middle ground between the art object and the patron of those arts. CANO’s fundraiser showcased local artists working in a variety of wearable mediums—dresses, hats, masks, gloves, and jewelry—but along with the wearable art sold at Bal des Artistes, Everything Collective, a local creative production house, occupied this fertile and conflicted middle ground with their tableaux vivants.

Tableau vivant is a French term that is often translated as living picture. The art form is theatrical in nature; live models pose, “freeze,” and allow the drama implicit in their arrangement to take its effect on the spectator. The act is inherently paradoxical, as elements of the painted picture and the elevated stage amalgamate into a scene that has neither a literal canvas nor a stage in the traditional sense of the word. It is a scene that is simultaneously living and dead, perhaps a medium of playing dead.

When translated as living picture, tableau vivant does nothing to communicate the notion of a moment encapsulated—living picture emphasizes the animate while downplaying the inanimate aspect. Living picture, at least to a contemporary ear, conjures phrases like motion picture or on-screen action. One must stretch toward freeze-frame for a remotely useful touchstone, though the art form itself stretches far beyond cinema to the Victorian era. Place the weight on picture rather than living, as a picture—like a painting—implies the frame, the strict boundaries. Rather than thinking of a picture stirred to life, consider the (living) person (picture) as paused, as stopped; consider life that has been slowed to a still.

Still life, on the other hand, has a name that more readily makes its intentions known (at least superficially). Here, the French—nature morte—comes much closer to signifying the signified than tableau vivant. Nature morte is a verbal sequence of nature followed by death; it is life stilled in its final frame. Still life bears the contemplative beauty of a funereal viewing, ripe for reflection.

Tableau vivant and still life arguably share conceptual space. Both rely on arrangement. Both are a type of reproduction. The tableau vivant originally created to reproduce paintings in a time before there were “prints”; the still life originally a form aimed at the realistic depiction—of a book, a bottle, a pelt of fur, a piece of fruit—before there were photographs.

As modes of reproduction, both the tableau vivant and the still life operate at a level of remove from whatever may be considered the “original.” With this level of (artificial) remove, the concrete identity of the subject opens and expands and—as Lia Purpura says of the comma in relation to the sentence (in relation to a life)—allows a pause for thought. The model “stands in” for something else; the painted object presumably spawns from a scene more “real” than the one we view. Purpura writes in an essay titled “Sugar Eggs: A Reverie”: “Frog spawn, those clear little globes of life, each with a pause and breath at its center, a comma thrashing, growing its thought.” And yes, this image seems fitting here—a life contained in a globed frame, the movement also a pause, the soon-to-be tadpole a not-quite replica of the frog as the still life and the tableau vivant are the not-quite reflections of their ancestor images. The art forms are mimetic, and, as with most instances of mimesis, there are inaccuracies and misalignments. The tableau vivant and the still life allow us to see the world, for that moment, framed in quotation marks, for we are not looking at a painting or an apple; we are looking at a “painting” and an “apple.”

But Everything Collective’s tableaux vivants at CANO’s Bal des Artistes were not based on paintings. They were representations of scenes never before presented. Models posing without predetermined form. Or, rather, the models were the forms—and their clothing for sale. The tableaux vivants were the finale of a fashion show, occupying the space between the performance and the party. So much so that the audience wasn’t quite sure if they were still supposed to be playing the role of the audience. Should we be watching? Is this all part of the show? Or should we grab another glass of wine before heading back to the cheese tray?

Brigitte Peucker writes in her essay “Filmic Tableau Vivant: Vermeer, Intermediality, and the Real”: “In other words, tableau vivant translates painting’s flatness, its two dimensionality, into the three-dimensional. By this means, it figures the introduction of the real into the image—the living body into the painting—and thus attempts to collapse the distance between signifier and signified.”

And the tableaux vivants at the ball did, in fact, serve to collapse, to fold the realms of performance and party chatter along their vanishing point, causing/creating the blurred lines of setting/scene, a host quickly ushering guests from parlor to dining room or vice versa.

A fundraiser for the arts is inherently complicated by the fact that art is necessarily commodified. It is framed, if not by wood and metal, by price. And while I did not see any piece of art adorned with a barcode, the barcode’s insistence of commodity persevered. Math and its stark lines cohabitated with feathered masks and rhinestoned hats. This object = this much money, the small “equals” sign the barcode in its fetal state.

As the tableau vivant contains paradox, so does a fundraiser ball for the arts. The historical (and dare I say nostalgic) romance of gowns and capes versus the garish sight of dollars emerging from pockets and purses and credit cards swiped through a little white box attached to an iPhone. Efforts are made to mask these (necessary) transactions. Efforts are made to remove from view that (part of) reality. Even purchasing a glass of wine becomes abstracted. Patrons purchase tickets at one table that may then be traded for alcohol at another, as if, in any (di)stilled moment, wine and money should not exist in the same frame. The artists selling their wares were literally around the corner, out of sight of the tables and chairs, chitchat and toothpicks of cheese.

Artists tend to/want to resist this (necessity of) commodification. They handwrite prices on paper tags tied with string. (If there must be commodification, let it at least hark back to another time.) Theoretically, art is meant to be consumed, both by the mind and monetarily. Artists, after all, need some nourishment in order to nourish both their own minds and the minds of others. But as the still life shows us, nourishment requires the compromise of sacrifice. Along with the metaphoric hourglass, still life also shows us the cut flower, the butchered meat. And no matter how romantic/idealistic/nostalgic the artist, these days the bar code (or at least its equivalent) must accompany the art. To some artists, the commercialization of their work is the forbidden fruit, the enticing apple that one simultaneously longs to reach toward and longs to forget.

Cézanne and his still lifes of apples echo this paradox, the tension between the desired and the ignored. Meyer Schapiro writes in his essay, “The Apples of Cézanne”: “A medieval painter would have been unlikely to transpose his sexual fantasy to a still life of apples, though [Cézanne] sensed in Eve's apple the erotic connotation of the forbidden fruit.” According to Schapiro, Cézanne paints not apples but “apples,” stand-ins for desire—a way for desire to be seen and also unseen.

About Cézanne’s early work, Schapiro writes: “When he paints a dark-toned still life of bread, eggs, onions, a milk pot and a knife, we imagine the bohemian painter at his improvised meal.” Here is our romantic artist—poised on the precipice of starvation.

And though Ernest Hemingway may have been sitting in a café in France progressively drinking himself to utter intoxication as he wrote, he was insistent that the creative mind required hunger. He writes in A Moveable Feast: “I learned to understand Cézanne much better ... when I was hungry. I used to wonder if he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been sleepless or hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.”

The tableaux vivants at the Bal des Artistes delayed just a little longer the return to the table, the return to food. As the audience watched the models morph from pose to pose, there were likely the simultaneous stirrings of the mind and the stomach—a hunger for thought and thoughts of hunger. Just what are they doing? And just how much cheese is left on that platter?

The metaphoric resonance of cheese at a cocktail party is (often) more pleasing to me than the cheese itself—the cheese is a staple of the scene, a literal binding agent, the hope and promise that a bite of gouda will soften the moment so that two strangers may converse. Milk mingles with enzymes in what is termed a “culture”; the product is packaged, purchased, and presented; and then we consume the cultured product while simultaneously consuming the products of culture.

The original barcode was not actually a bar. The name, again, deceives. N. Joseph Woodland, the co-inventor of the original barcode, conceived of a circle, coded spherical surfaces as a representation for something else, not so dissimilar from Cézanne’s apples. With the barcode, we again have the signifier at a great distance from the signified. Its creation was (nearly) accidental, a mind making conceptual associations prodded along by the visual. As Woodland relayed to Smithsonian Magazine, “I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason—I didn’t know—I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said: ‘Golly! Now I have four lines.’” Lines became “lines” that became a circled-code that later, for practicality, would become a bar. The entire enterprise of “scanning” a product requires the physical object to be turned into a number so that the number may then be turned into the barcode. The number, like the tableau vivant, is suspended between two solid states: body of art and black lines, fashion and fundraiser.

In a recent interview with Bookslut, Lia Purpura remarks on her own commodification as an artist and the moment she felt she had “made it” as an author: “This is odd and seemingly unlike me in so many ways—not being one for systems and markets—but I was deeply moved by my first ISBN number. It made me feel small in all the right ways. It also allowed me to feel part of a library, which for me is a sacred space.”

The paradox of the barcode is there. The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is, eventually, translated systematically into a barcode for the marketplace. Purpura is moved by that number, which is so “unlike” her but also hers (her use of the first person possessive pronoun). By feeling “small in all the right ways,” she becomes compact, and then, able to be compartmentalized in the larger—and notably “sacred”—system of the library. Purpura elucidates that the commodification of her work allows her to embrace what others might consider “forbidden” while at the same time embracing her newfound place in a space she considers sacred. The commodification/commercialization of the artist may be considered by some as indecorous, but the barcode is a necessary decoration if the artist wishes to be found in the library. If the artist finds the barcode a burden, it is at least a nourishing one.

“Hunger is good discipline,” writes Hemingway, “and you learn from it... And as long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them. Oh, sure, I thought, I’m so far ahead of them now that I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little.”

Hemingway suggests that the avant-garde must be tempered by the capacity for public consumption in order to survive. At the end of his day of writing, he eats oysters, an object frequently portrayed in still life right alongside the wine. The still life, the oyster, the tableau vivant—all are suspended between life and death, caught in that temporal moment, hanging/hinging/bridging, an action that is a stand-in, that stands between two states—an uncertainty that stands between two certainties. After all, the tableaux vivants at the Bal des Artistes did not have titles. As Schapiro says of Cézanne’s still life of bread and eggs and onion, we are looking at an “improvised meal.” With no title and therefore no implicit frame/framing device, these modern incarnations of the tableau vivant may certainly catch attention or create desire but they also do not demand it. In fact, the tableau vivant was the only medium of art at the ball that was not (and can never be) for sale—reinforcing the medium’s ambiguity. There was nothing to explicitly express this is art or this is all part of the show. But there was also nothing to stifle the audience’s freedom to make of it what they may.