Friday, November 14, 2008

Living or Sculpted: Tableau Vivant and the Sculpture of Duane Hanson

Grade Levels: 9-12 (but can be adapted for elementary students)

Brief History and Background

Living Statue
The term living statue refers to a mime artist who poses like a statue or mannequin, usually with realistic statue-like makeup, sometimes for hours at a time. This is an art that requires a great deal of patience and physical stamina.

Living statue performers have been known to pose as shop window mannequins in order to fool passersby, and a number of hidden camera shows on television have had living statues suddenly spring to life to startle people. As with all performing arts, living statue performers may perform as buskers or in commissioned shows. Some living statues are also invited to perform in fine arts exhibitions.

Tableau Vivant
Tableau vivant is French for "living picture." The term describes a striking group of suitably costumed actors or artist's models, carefully posed and often theatrically lit. Throughout the duration of the display, the people shown do not speak or move. The approach thus marries the art forms of the stage with those of painting/photography, and as such it has been of interest to modern photographers.

The tableau vivant was a regular feature of medieval and Renaissance festivities and pageantry, such as royal weddings or royal entries by rulers into cities. Typically a group enacting a scene would be mounted on an elaborate stand decorated to look like a monument, placed on the route of the procession. In fact, the phrase and the practice probably began in medieval liturgical dramas such as the Golden Mass, where on special occasions a Mass was punctuated by short dramatic scenes and tableaus.

Before radio, film and television, tableau vivants were popular forms of entertainment. Before the age of color reproduction of images the tableau vivant (often abbreviated simply to tableau) was sometimes used to recreate paintings "on stage", based on an etching or sketch of the painting. This could be done as an amateur venture in a drawing room, or as a more professionally produced series of tableau presented on a theatre stage, one following another, usually to tell a story without requiring all the usual trappings of a "live" theatre performance. They thus 'educated' their audience to understand the form taken by later Victorian and Edwardian era magic lantern shows, and perhaps also sequential narrative comic strips (which first appeared in modern form in the late 1890s).

A tableau vivant-style production called the Pageant of the Masters has been held in Laguna Beach, California every summer since 1933 (with the exception of four years during World War II). It involves hundreds of volunteers drawn from the surrounding area and attracts over a hundred thousand visitors annually. The festival recreates famous works of art on the stage. It has a different theme each year, but always features a recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." The only time Da Vinci's "Last Supper" did not appear was when the festival's theme was Salvador Dali, in which case Dali's "Last Supper" filled the void.

Duane Hanson
Duane Hanson was an American sculptor known for his life-cast, realistic works of people, cast in various materials, including polyester resin, fiberglass, Bondo and bronze. His work is often associated with the Pop Art movement, as well as hyperrealism.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Hanson's works were cast in bronze. His works exact and made via life-casting, the pieces created from epoxy resin or bronze, and the whole sculpture painted to faithfully resemble a living person. This combined with handpicked wigs, clothing and accessories means that Hanson's works are perfect simulacra, often fooling gallery visitors with their ordinary appearance and casual stances.

Hanson chose to sculpt working-class citizens, unremarkable people going about their business. In transforming them into highly complex works of art, he highlighted the activities and societal roles of everyday people.

(Above image: Traveler,1988, auto body filler, fiberglass and mixed media with accessories life size, Saatchi Gallery, London Contemporary Art Gallery, London)

Types of Writing (1.5); Speaking and Listening (1.6); Production, Performance and Exhibition of Dance, Music, Theater and Visual Arts (9.1); Historical and Cultural Contexts (9.2), Critical Response (9.3), Aesthetic Response (9.4); Physical Activity (10.4)

Goal: In groups, students will use their knowledge of tableau vivant, the social commentary in Duane Hanson’s life-like sculpture and physical stamina to create and exhibit human sculptures to the class.


  • Students will briefly discuss the definition of sculpture and how, at times, it can be more powerful than two-dimensional art.
  • Students will discuss tableau vivant and Duane Hanson’s life-like sculptures.
  • Students will discuss the similarities/differences between social commentary (Duane Hanson sculpture) and entertainment (tableau vivant).
  • Students (in groups) will brainstorm and come up with a social issue (i.e. homeless, school violence, poor economy) and work cooperatively to interpret the commentary in a living sculpture using themselves and three props.
  • As a group, students will write a 3-5 narrative about their sculpture without revealing what social issue the sculpture depicts and will read it to the groups prior to any guessing of what the social commentary might be.
  • Students will be given the opportunity to view each other’s group sculptures and offer guesses as to what kind of social commentary is being conveyed.
  • Students will critique sculptures and comment on their effectiveness.

Resource Materials/ Visual Aids:

• PowerPoint presentation (including videos)
• Images of performers and Duane Hanson’s sculptures (either printed or projected during activity)

Supplies/ Material:

• Props (depending on the number of students in the class)
• Paper and writing utensils (for writing and sketching, if necessary)

Teacher Preparation

• Research tableau vivant and Duane Hanson to prepare a short PowerPoint as an introduction
• Gather objects for props
• Print out images of Duane Hanson sculptures, if necessary
• Make sure room is equipped with screen, projector and hook-ups


Introduction: In a PowerPoint presentation, show students an image of a living statue (Living statue in Rome, Italy. The performer is presumably recreating the look of bronze. What you cannot see is his perfect stillness. He stirs a little, and yawns, only when a coin is dropped into the collecting bowl) and a Duane Hanson sculpture (Traveller,1988, autobody filler, fiberglass and mixed media with accessories life size, Saatchi Gallery, London Contemporary Art Gallery, London) Ask the students what they see (sculpture). What are both of the sculptures trying to convey, if anything? Ask them to describe both and see if they can guess which image is of a sculpture or live statue. Ask them to explain how they came to their conclusions. Reveal the truth about the images and segue into tableau vivant and Duane Hanson and social commentary. Briefly discuss tableau vivant and then Duane Hanson to make the necessary connections (social commentary, consumerism). Prepare for activity.


1. Divide students into groups of 4-5 students and explain that they will become live sculptures based on a social commentary/issue of some kind.

2. Students will get together in groups and teacher will pass out three props to each group.

3. Groups will have 10 minutes to pick a social issue that they would like to “sculpt” and create their sculpture.

4. One student in each group will write a short narrative (3-5 sentences) of the group commentary without revealing the social concern they are trying to depict. This student will not participate in the sculpture, but will act as narrator and read the group narrative.

5. Be sure to remind students that they are to remain respectful of each other’s personal space and personal views. Students are to remain mindful of how they present their commentary.

6. After ten minutes of brainstorming and creating, each group will present and narrate their living sculpture to the class.

7. Groups will have a few minutes to guess what the sculpture might be saying. Once the answer is revealed, groups will offer short critiques (successes, failures, confusion, improvements) and discuss elements that may have influenced their guesses.

8. While the students are conversing, teacher will document sculptures through photography.


Groups that finish early will be given a Duane Hanson image or an image of a living statue to write a fictional narrative about what they see.

Critique/ Evaluation/ Assessment

1) Comprehension of tableau vivant and the art of Duane Hanson through class discussion.
2) Participation and cooperation in a group activity to create a living sculpture of a social concern, issue or commentary and present it (with a short, written narrative) to the class. Worked cohesively for a common end.
3) Participation in guessing what each sculpture is trying to convey as well as group critique.
4) Overall cooperation with group members with little or no intervention by the teacher.

Time Schedule

Intro: 5-7 minutes
Activity: 10 minutes
Group Presentations, Participation and Critique: 15-20 minutes

Vocabulary: sculpture, tableau vivant, Duane Hanson, social commentary, narrative, consumerism, hyperrealism (blurs line between reality and fantasy; photorealism; photo reference)

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1 comment:

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