Life Imitates Art: Fairfield Students Recreate Classic Artwork as "Tableaux Vivants"

Life Imitates Art: Fairfield Students Recreate Classic Artwork as Tableaux Vivants

Art history student Yocasta Olivo ’20 received a gold medal distinction for her tableau vivant featuring her mother as Frida Kahlo.

Art History and English undergraduates were challenged to reinterpret iconic literary and artistic masterpieces as an alternative to traditional final exams.

As Fairfield University courses pivoted online for the spring 2020 semester, professors in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Art History and English programs took an innovative approach to virtual learning by offering their students a creative alternative to the traditional essay-based final. Inspired by a popular trend that has been sweeping social media, art history professors Philip Eliasoph, PhD, Michelle DiMarzo, PhD, and Marice Rose, PhD, as well as English professor and E. Gerald Corrigan Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences Emily Orlando, PhD, challenged their students to recreate famous literary and artistic works as tableaux vivants, using household items and their own creativity.

French for “living pictures,” tableaux vivants have recently become a popular shelter-in-place activity driven by museum hashtags, like the J. Paul Getty museum’s #gettychallenge, that prompt people to reinterpret iconic masterpieces and post their version next to the original on social media. As museums and galleries remain shuttered across the U.S., the artistic challenge has become a fun and interactive way for people to stay connected to art.

In Dr. Orlando’s literature course, "Edith Wharton and Her Circle," students were issued a take-home exam instructing them to create a tableau vivant of a scene from a literary work or work of art they had studied during the semester. Students had the option of closely recreating the original or transforming it for modern audience, and were required to submit a brief, explanatory essay discussing the tableau's connection to at least one literary or visual text. The results didn’t disappoint. Two students cleverly modeled their tableaux on publicity photos taken of the image-conscious Edith Wharton, while another student immersed herself, fully clothed, into a bathtub to emulate John Everett Millais's famous painting of Ophelia drowning. Several students also chose to adapt their tableaux for the current pandemic, incorporating facemasks and gloves into their art.

“My aim was to encourage students to engage with our readings from the 19th and 20th centuries in a creative and kinesthetic way,” Dr. Orlando said. “I wanted us to exhaust the possibilities of our quarantine by doing things we might not be able to do in a classroom. This exercise allows us to ‘inhabit’ a literary or visual text that has been important to Edith Wharton who was, herself, something of a self-taught art historian. I was so pleased with the results that I have pledged to find a way to assign this project again, with or without a pandemic.” 

Equally delighted by the inventiveness of their students’ tableau vivant-themed final exams, Dr. Eliasoph, Dr. Rose, and Dr. DiMarzo each chose three top contenders from their classes for anonymous submission to a competition organized by art history and visual culture professor Katherine A. Schwab, PhD. Judges Carey Weber, executive director of the Fairfield University Art Museum; Megan Paqua, Fairfield University Art Museum registrar and art history and visual culture lecturer; and Ive Covaci, PhD, art history and visual culture lecturer, evaluated the submissions on creativity and awarded gold, silver, and bronze distinctions.

The gold medal was awarded to finance major Yocasta Olivo ’20 from Dr. DiMarzo’s “Exploring Art History: Technology and Art” course. In her portrait, Olivo's mother is depicted as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The silver medal was awarded to Olivio’s classmate and fellow finance major Vin Doren ’21, whose parents were used as stand-ins for the figures in Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting, and the bronze medal went to first-year nursing student Savannah Haims ‘13 for her cosmetic recreation of Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa using eye makeup.

“In this time of uncertainty, stress, and sadness, I was glad to participate in giving our students a creative outlet,” Dr. Rose said. “They clearly had fun as they engaged with the course material, and I was impressed with the amount of time and effort they put into these projects.”

Highlights from Fairfield University's Tableau Vivant Project 

Highlights from Fairfield University's Tableau Vivant Project 

Tags:  Top Stories,  College of Arts & Sciences


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