Whether you are a library media specialist, a teacher of social studies, art history, ELA or any other discipline that incorporates art and photography as a teaching tool or element of content, building living tableaux — people posing to replicate a 2D image — is a classroom exercise that has so many learning benefits for students! It is a kinesthetic experience that challenges students to develop empathy with the figures being depicted and even fosters conversations about digital citizenship.
To form a tableau, I allow students time to scan the painting, then ask them to choose a person on whom they want to focus. Alternately, you can group the students and assign each group one character from the painting to consider. Then I ask the students to stare at just that person and to think and wonder about that person while looking at him/her. I give them a moment to jot down what thoughts, feelings, and questions they have before moving to the next step. For this exercise, let’s imagine that we are studying Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright.
Once students have collected their thoughts, I ask for a student from each group to volunteer to become the person s/he scrutinized from the painting. These students then assemble themselves in the middle of the classroom in a re-creation of the painting. Once they are set, the rest of the class can adjust “the posers” by re-positioning them for accuracy, directing their body language and facial expressions. They may apply props from the classroom to enhance the living replication of the original.
Students will have to break the tableau to participate in the discussion so, if possible, take a picture of the students in their arrangement and post it for them to see alongside the image of the original work. When analyzing and discussing paintings, I always remind my students that every element of a painting is the conscious choice of the artist. Even happy accidents that remain in the final work do so because the artist decided they should stay. Every color, brushstroke, facial expression, object is there by choice and design. Therefore, as viewers of the painting, in order to fully engage in the artist’s message, purpose or intent, we must ask “Why?”
Before discussing, I ask students to engage in some reflective writing. I give them a few minutes to collect their thoughts about what their person: thinks, feels, wonders, fears, hopes, sees, believes. I prompt students to consider gender and gender identity, age, attire, body language, facial expression, relationship to the group, etc. as they collect their thoughts. Before we discuss the painting as a class, the students share these reflections with their small group.
I transition to the whole class discussion by asking those students who posed in the tableau to share how it felt to be the person? What were they thinking about as they held the facial expression and posture of their person? Then, I ask other students to share their observations of the person they examined. Once they have explored the figures individually, I prompt them to consider the relationships between the people in the painting and finally, I ask what they think this painting is about. For an artwork like Joseph Wright’s Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, I prompt them to push past the literal… it is a painting about an experiment (which it is) because it is also a painting of risk-taking, of questioning or inquiry, of seeking answers, of fear. In fact, I have used this painting as an introduction to a unit on the Enlightenment and students have come to the conclusion that this is a painting of the moment of becoming Enlightened. At that point, I draw their attention to the man in red. Why is he (and the bird) the only person looking at us, the viewer? What is our role in the experiment? Why did the artist make us complicit in the secret proceedings?
Once you know something, you can never un-know it. Once people start to question and seek answers and learn new realities, the world can never be the same. Welcome to the Enlightenment!
This exercise can be applied to a photo as well as a painting or other work of art. Consider photos that capture emotionally dramatic events like the iconic 1957 image of Elizabeth Eckford, pursued by Hazel Bryan, as she navigates the mob on her way to Central High School in Little Rock. Begin by selecting two students to reproduce the central figures, Eckford and Bryan. Then slowly add class members to the composition one at a time.
Ask students to closely consider the facial expressions of each person. What does the expression tell us about the emotions the person is experiencing at the moment this photograph was made? Push students to consider feelings beyond “mad” or “angry”. Ask them to consider what is motivating the emotions they think they see.
Ask students to discuss how well they think they think to understand the people whose faces are not showing a lot of emotion. How can we understand people we can not visually read? Why are some people stoic and others agitated? How does someone maintain composure in such a circumstance?
Finally, ask students to consider who these people are today. Could they ever in their lives being recognized as anything other than who they were at this moment? No one in this photo posed for its making, yet the widespread and ongoing distribution of this photo has defined these people for generations. Ask the students: “How are you defining yourself and being defined by others in social media and other contexts?”
Visual texts in any media are powerful primary sources. Exercises like this equip students to examine and unpack them when doing independent research and provide them the reflective capacity for understanding their own image creation and distribution.