I think that guy in the painting just moved.
Yes, definitely a wobble, though he’s supposed to be as immobile as only a two-dimensional figure painted in 1912 can be.
For a quick moment the man, clad in the garb of an early 19th-century explorer, standing with hat in hand and long rifle slung over his shoulder, looks as if he might even lose his balance. But he recovers, settling into a frozen pose.
I’m sitting in the audience at the Southern California tradition known as the Festival of Arts “Pageant of the Masters.” The scene at the moment is an enormous reproduction of Edgar S. Paxson’s 1912 oil painting “Lewis & Clark at Three Forks,” and the slightly wobbly man – a servant to the two great explorers – is one of five humans cleverly positioned in the tableau.
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I’m glad I’ve witnessed a tiny flaw in this amazing program, which features an evening-length series of tableaux vivants, or “living pictures.” The effect can be so perfect, with the cast members standing so impeccably still, that it can be hard to tell where the person ends and the paint begins. Only by seeing a slight mistake are my eyes reminded how this special effect is achieved.
The pageant is a strange and wonderful experience that hovers somewhere between homegrown community theater production and slickly produced world-class attraction. In all my years in California this is my first time to see this famous show, which has been around since 1933. It’s very popular, with the 2,600-seat outdoor Irvine Bowl – nestled in a canyon cooled by ocean breezes so luxurious you can almost smell the essence of rich people lounging in million-dollar beachfront homes – regularly selling out.
I’m entranced. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
In a backstage tour before the show, I get a chance to see how the magic is made.
In the makeup area, cast members are squeezed into tight rows to have makeup applied. There are more than 150 in this year’s production, all volunteers culled from nearly 1,400 who auditioned in January. (People are selected on body size and type.) In another adjacent room, cast members climb into elaborate costumes, many of them in 18th- and 19th-century styles as befitting the “masters” of the title.
It’s a flurry of breeches and satin shoes and petticoats, everything from the rags of frontier life to the finery of the French court.
Other cast members have their bodies fully painted. Along with famous paintings – and a few vintage movie posters – the show is also known for its depiction of sculptures and statues. In this year’s show, there are even art nouveau enamel brooches and 1930s crystal perfume bottles.
Most of the backstage helpers are volunteers, too. Altogether there are nearly 500 people involved, in two complete casts, including 35 full-time employees and a 29-piece orchestra.
Each year’s show, which runs during July and August, is new, with approximately 40 “scenes” divided into two acts. This year’s theme is “Partners,” which explains why the explorers Lewis and Clark get a four-painting sequence. Other famous pairs include Adam and Eve; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; and a movie segment including such Hollywood stars as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
While the show tends toward older artworks – one reason being that there have to be people in them, which tends to rule out lots of modern, contemporary and abstract art – there are living painters represented, too, such as David Hockney.
Our tour wanders onto the stage to see up close the massive picture frames designed for each vignette. In some of the paintings, holes are cut in the painted backdrop for the cast members to stick their heads and torsos into. In others, the people actually “hover” in front of the backdrop, safely latched in high above the stage floor.
Inside the frame, a row of footlights helps create the illusion of seamlessness. When I see the show a few hours later, the expert lighting design makes the reproduced painting appear as if I’m looking at something that looks two-dimensional. Or is it?
A gentle kiss
Gerolamo Induno painted “The Kiss on the Hand” in 1877. In the painting, an elegantly dressed young woman is about to depart in a red carriage, stopping to receive a farewell kiss on her hand from an equally elegant young man. A video tells the backstory of how this particular tableaux came together, from the casting of the two principals through costume design, fittings and rehearsals.
Then we watch the man and woman walk onto the stage and climb into position. The lights dim and then come up in a blaze. The painting has come to life.
It’s a wonderful moment because – just like that unplanned wobble in the Lewis and Clark painting – it reminds you those are real people up there.
And there’s something distinctive and intriguing about the translation from two dimensions to three. Looking at these vignettes from the audience, it’s almost like looking through a photographer’s loupe, with the human element slightly magnified.
Another favorite tableaux for me: Hockney’s 1968 work “American Collectors.” Hockney painted this portrait of a wealthy Los Angeles couple, Fred and Marcia Weisman. I’ve always loved this painting. The couple, both prominent art collectors, are depicted as stiff, immobile creatures, much like their art objects. The glossy California sun seems to blanch them of warmth, leaving them as flat and cold as their expensive surroundings. It is not a flattering portrait. (The subjects hated it, which almost makes me think, heh heh.) I love the effect of seeing it on stage.
There are some art purists, I suppose, who could sit back and scoff at the pageant. Yes, there are moments that can seem a little stilted. There’s a faint hint of Orange-County Disney animatronic fakeness to the proceedings.
But for me, any of those impulses are smothered by two things: the earnestness of the event, with its hundreds of volunteers and nonprofit status and community spirit; and also its sumptuousness, with its impeccable production values. It knows what it wants to be, and it accomplishes that mission superbly.
What strikes is me is how old-fashioned in many ways the production remains. Sure, there are neat special effects and extensive use of video and projections. But for all its tech-heavy bells and whistles, the production still dares to show us a still “painting” and let us linger on it for a minute. That’s pretty remarkable in today’s quick-cut culture, where even our somber TV newscasts would feel naked without text crawling and spinning all over the screen.
It harkens back to a time when paintings were as stimulating as our ubiquitous video entertainments are today, when paintings would go on “tour” and people would patiently stand in line for hours just for a chance to gaze at a still image.
Just think: I’m sitting there with 2,600 other people, and we’re silent as we look at a painting. On a gorgeous summer night, with a beach breeze riffling my face, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Pageant of the Masters
- Through Aug. 31
- 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
- www.foapom.com, 800-487-3378