A woman with a roll of toilet paper around her neck. A man with lettuce on his head, bare-chested in a sheet, delicately holding a large goblet of red wine. A child with small lilac angel wings posed atop a mound of — again — toilet paper, with siblings and parents looking on in the background. For weeks, people have been recreating works of fine art using household items and posting their tableaus on social media.
At a time when museums are closed, galleries have shuttered and art education has largely moved online, these images have formed a living archive of creativity in isolation. Tens of thousands of recreations appear under the hashtags #mettwinning, #betweenartandquarantine and #gettymuseumchallenge. Some have been made by arts professionals, but many of them are the skillful works of amateurs.
Anneloes Officier believes that her household in Amsterdam started this spontaneous wave of imitative works. For a month, she has been collecting submissions and posting them on the Instagram account @tussenkunstenquarantaine (a reference the Dutch television program “Tussen Kunst en Kitsch,” whose title means “between art and kitsch”).
“Over 24,000 contributions have come in through our hashtag,” Ms. Officier, 31, said, adding that staff members from the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Getty and the Hermitage have taken part. The creators sometimes impose their own rules and restrictions, such as limiting the number of props or the time allotted to create a replica.
These recreations recall the work of the artist Nina Katchadourian, whose series “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style” was shot entirely in airplane bathrooms. They’re part of a larger body of work, called “Seat Assignment,” in which she creates art during commercial flights.
“I was trying to make art under circumstances where art doesn’t seem possible. It involves a kind of magic trick,” Ms. Katchadourian said. “It’s not unrelated to the constraints people are under now.” She’s “delighted and charmed” to see that others are taking to the form.
Francesco De Grazia, a 25-year-old classical guitarist from Sicily, said that almost every concert and artistic event he had been looking forward to has been canceled, leaving him with plenty of time on his hands to dress up like a Caravaggio painting. “The only possibility is to make use of the tools offered by the web while waiting for this nightmare to pass,” he said. “I hope I was able to make someone laugh.”
Although not normally a big fan of social media, Crystal Filep, a 36-year-old urban planner from Wellington, New Zealand, decided to join in after her mother encouraged her to try her hand at the challenge. “I was attracted to the bodily, tactile nature,” she said. “I had been spending an unhealthy amount of time in front of screens for virtual meetings, emails, spreadsheets.” Turning away from work to take part in a creative exercise “helped lighten things, and put things in perspective,” Ms. Filep said.
In interviews with more than a dozen participants in the challenge — among them a Japanese actor living in London and a social worker from Azerbaijan — every person mentioned the sense of lightness that came from pretending to be someone else for a moment. They also spoke about their love for art and museums. There are so many people who miss the quietly social act of looking at art with others. For now, they will have to make do with virtual gallery tours and riffs on famous paintings posted to Instagram.
These embodiments of artworks have a historical precedent. Long before we were dabbing eye shadow on our lips and posing with toilet paper, people were donning makeup, holding props and posing rigidly in place for up to a full minute as part of a dramatic practice known as tableau vivant, or living picture. Historians have traced evidence of the phenomenon back to the 1700s, where it served as a form of entertainment and instruction.
In 1760, a group of Italian comedic actors recreated Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s painting “The Village Betrothal in Les Noces d’Arlequin” as part of larger theatrical performance, and in 1781, children at the Royal Palace of Versailles supposedly participated in a series of tableaux vivants inspired by the paintings of Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Isabey. The hobby picked up steam during the 1800s, and reached its peak around the turn of the 20th century.
While the widespread use of photography and the availability of the cinema made the practice of tableau vivant seem less engaging, it never fully faded from sight. Every year, residents of Laguna Beach, Calif., dress up for the Pageant of the Masters, an event that has been referenced in popular culture (including on episodes of “Arrested Development” and “Gilmore Girls”).
When restrictions on public life are lifted, participation in this social media challenge — and several others that have emerged over the last month — will surely wane. But some educators are hoping to keep the recreations going long after stay-at-home orders end.
“I’m definitely going to keep assigning this project,” said Stacy Antoville, who teaches art at the Clinton School, a 6-12 public school in Manhattan.
Like the rest of the city’s residents, her students are “dealing with a lot of trauma right now.” Some are grieving losses; others are anxious about the future. They’re having trouble focusing on schoolwork and art, but they rose to the tableau vivant challenge in a way Ms. Antoville didn’t expect, gamely fashioning themselves as famous subjects like Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí. “I hope this can give them one good memory from this time,” she said.