Whilst considering the works of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall, two photographers who play with notions of constructed and reconstructed identities, facts and realities, I was drawn to the work of one of my favourite contemporary photographers – Hiroshi Sugimoto, and a shared obsession of ours – the waxwork.
I discovered a number of parallels between the ideas found in Sherman’s, Wall’s and Sugimoto’s work that can also be expanded further to include the aesthetics of waxwork portraits and waxwork exhibitions and how, like photography, they operate on various representations of reality and an audience’s acceptance of these realities in order to succeed.
Confessions of a waxwork museum guide
I have had a lifelong fascination with waxworks; an obsession that stems from my early childhood and my first visit to London’s Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum. I remember being taken there by my grandmother and her sister when I was 4 or 5 and can recall how they took great delight in my utter confusion at coming face to face with a cloakroom clerk in the grand entrance to the museum. Encouraged to go and say hello, I couldn’t understand why the moustached gentleman failed to reply, why he didn’t flinch when I touched his hand and why his gaze remained permanently fixed.
It was only after being told that “he wasn’t real” by my grandmother that I comprehended just where I was and the experience that lay ahead. I still remember it as one of the most thrilling experiences of my life – an enthralling game of deciphering reality from fiction, of attempting to recognise famous actors and singers from my brief knowledge of celebrity and of watching others experiencing the same feelings of amusement, shock and bewilderment.
And so my ongoing passion for waxwork museums began with near annual visits back to Madame Tussaud’s throughout my childhood and adolescence. Later, whilst at university, I was overjoyed when I secured a job as a guide there, working for weeks at a time on my return to London in the holidays.
It felt like coming home – I felt I had such an intrinsic knowledge and appreciation of my new workplace, generated through all those visits over the years. Somehow, I felt I had earned the right to be part of the museum and learn its secrets. Needless to say I truly relished the experience.
I quickly learnt to appreciate each figure in there as a unique work of art; as products of centuries’ old craftsmanship handed down to Madame Therese Tussaud and onto the current studio team, with little changes made to the process and techniques involved.
I also understood the objectives of the sculptor and their team in their bid to achieve total accuracy – the need for hundred of accurate measurements, the minute details that could make or break the finished figure, the necessary level of celebrity and familiarity of the subject and the expected reception they would garner once they entered the exhibition, all of which proved vital to a waxwork figure’s success (watch the video below for more on how a Tussaud’s figure is made).
As a guide I was responsible for monitoring all areas of the attraction, of greeting visitors and answering any questions they had about the exhibition or the figures. I would also have to monitor visitor behaviour continually and quickly found that watching visitors encounter the figures was a fascinating exercise in itself.
Having experienced the exhibition as a visitor myself, I was aware of the effect encountering waxworks can have, from frightening nervous children through to over-excited fans, patriotic tourists overjoyed to see their prime minister or monarch represented and even clumsy folk unaware they could potentially break a piece of work worth hundred of thousands of pounds.
The aesthetic value of waxworks as an art form has been considered as the art has developed over the centuries, from their use in medical science to the more popular form of spectacle.
As a former employee of the French Royal Family, Madame Tussaud was saved from the guillotine due to her ability to cast realistic portraits. Revolutionaries realising her talent could benefit their cause ordered her to make models from the fresh amputated heads of the Royals and other notables, which were later paraded and displayed as part of the Revolutionaries’ cause.
Pilbeam (2003 cited in Turner 2003) cites waxwork exhibitions in 18th Century Paris as proving more representative of life events than theatrical reconstructions and even proving an unlikely source of current affairs coverage and opinion than newspapers. Pilbeam also focuses on the experience of the visitor, comparing a visit to Madame Tussaud’s to a more conventional museum:
“Unlike a museum, a waxworks was an active cultural experience. Customers could touch the models, study them in detail, discuss them out loud.” (Pilbeam 2003 cited in Turner 2003)
Whilst waxworks museums are never usually held with the same artistic, cultural or historical regard as a traditional art gallery, collection or institute, both are in the business of presenting interpretations of reality to an audience. Bloom (2003) explores this further when she considers the traditional ideas of the aesthetic value of waxworks and waxwork exhibitions by examining how a typical waxwork attraction operates on the level of spectacle as opposed to a museum’s sense of high aesthetics. This in turn denotes historical, evidential, archival and educational worth. She concludes,
“The “aesthetic” connotes quality and authenticity whereas the “spectacular” evokes “cheapness” and theatricality.” (Bloom 2003: 14)
What is interesting about this is how Bloom connects notions of the aesthetic to authenticity – to a trusted, accepted version of reality whereas the spectacular is somehow regarded with less value. The use of the word ‘theatricality’ also suggests something false, something staged, and something ultimately temporary as opposed to the more established, accepted aesthetic approach.
However, one can argue that waxworks find themselves in a unique position where they can operate both in the realms of the aesthetic and the spectacular – a vital characteristic if they are to succeed. Yet like an established fine art establishment, a waxworks attraction is also concerned with ideas of representation and reality that aims to be readily accepted by an audience.
When considering waxworks and notions of representation and reality, one can begin by comparing it to traditional fine art representative media such as photography or painting. To do this, let’s consider what a waxwork portrait is – essentially a sculpture of a human likeness, a representation of a human being crafted by various processes including moulding, casting and painting.
Like photography and painting, it is created in a studio using specialist skills, with view to being exhibited in the public realm, values it also shares with painting and photography is. With this in mind, we can compare waxworks to paintings and photographs and how each practice operates on a representative level.
Scruton (2004) offers an insight into the representative value by comparing painting with photography and argues:
“The aim of painting is to give insight, and the creation of an appearance is important mainly as the expression of thought….The ideal photograph…stands in a casual relation to its subject and ‘represents’ its subject by reproducing its appearance…” (Scruton 2004: 364)
On what makes an “ideal” photo, Scruton states that person looking at it “…is given a very good idea of how something looked. The result is that from studying a photograph he may come to know how something looked in the way that he might know it if he had actually seen it.” (Scruton 2004: 364)
When one applies Scruton’s thinking to waxworks, one can identify similar factors between viewing a photograph and deciphering how something may have looked with encountering a waxwork and understanding how someone may look if the viewer was actually meeting them.
One can conclude that here lies the secret to the success of a waxwork – a sense of familiarity through a sense of authentic representation – of how something looked at the time, and in a manner that the viewer would experience it if they had actually met the person represented as a waxwork figure.
Whilst photography captures a specific moment of reality, albeit a represented version of it, a waxwork and in particular a historical tableaux is essentially a false representation of reality where the viewer’s entire encounter is based on a concocted sense of reality. In fact, reality and representation are blurred into a heady mix of memory recall, of previous experience as well as the spectacle and sensation of the waxwork attraction environment, as a real life visitor encounters a life-like figure or gazes upon a recreated version of reality that they are expected to accept and understand as historically accurate.
In 1969, Madame Tussaud’s in London launched a Battle Of Britain area, featuring waxworks of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill alongside war memorabilia and reconstructions of the Blitz. Pathe News reported on the opening as leading figures from the war gathered at Madame Tussaud’s for the launch to experience the series of tableaux which included radio broadcasts and music from the era, newspapers and other artefacts reminiscent of the war years.
The Battle of Britain area and the launch itself serve as a curious example how waxworks serve to represent the past in a new reality – to those who lived through the time it represents and to those who have no experience of such scenes ahead of entering the constructed space.
To both categories of viewer though, the experience remains artificial and mere spectacle; a medley of authentic and constructed signs and signifiers such as recognisable waxworks, genuine aircraft, mocked up interiors, radio broadcasts and other cultural artefacts from a different time – yet the underlying idea of a wax museum is to present a knowingly reconstructed reality as accurately as possible.
Interestingly, the newsreel’s commentary emphasises the importance of remembrance and memory as the voiceover declares how the Battle of Britain area, “…captures both the glory and the horror of those trying days…There was a lot of nostalgia on opening day and a lot of memories of so many of whom those days were their last days.”
In the case of historical tableaux, a visitor has to suspend a certain amount of belief in the overall sense of authenticity that the waxwork museum attempts to create. Whilst they will be aware that the representation of reality they are being presented with is purely constructed, they will come to believe that, like Scruton’s photograph, it is how something would have looked and felt had they actually seen it or lived through it.
For those who lived through the times depicted, a historical tableau serves, like so many visitors to a wax museum, as a cue to compare their version and perception of the reality they’ve personally experienced with the one being presented before them. It also serves as a means of triggering memories and of nostalgic thoughts in order to compare these two very different realities – an awareness of a real-life past encroaching on their present reality; one in which they find themselves gazing back onto a false version of the past.
The work of Hiroshi Sugimoto
The ideas and approaches to waxworks and representations of reality discussed above are worth considering when approaching the work of contemporary Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. Renowned for his photos of waxworks and other lifelike museum exhibits, Sugimoto aims to present the most representative, lifelike photographic image of something of something that appears lifelike but clearly isn’t.
Sugimoto’s interest in waxworks and other similar museum exhibits began in the early 1970s and continues today. His series of photos entitled ‘Dioramas’ focuses on the exhibits in New York’s Museum of Modern History and their attempt to create true-to-life scenarios of a reality long gone and of life as well wildlife on the planet today (pictured right).
Of the work, Sugimoto says,
“However fake the subject, once photographed, it’s as good as real.” (Sugimoto, n.d).
He has also taken photos of the figures at Madame Tussaud’s in a series of work labelled ‘Portraits. Initially inspired by the waxwork of Henry VIII made by Tussaud’s sculptors in turn inspired by Hans Holbein’s famous portrait housed in the National Portrait Gallery, Sugimoto presents us with a timeless photograph of the monarch – a two-dimensional portrait of a three-dimensional portrait (the waxwork), which in turn was made from a two-dimensional portrait (Holbein’s painting), taken of a real-life person (the King himself)- with time, space, history and memory all shaping what the image represents and how and what we, as viewers, perceive as real.
“If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, you had better reconsider what it means to be alive here and now”, Sugimoto warns his audience about his Portraits (Sugimoto, n.d). Indeed, factors such as his use of silver gelatin processing, of monochrome film and harsh lighting (that in part betrays the portrait as a wax figure), make us reconsider just what can be deemed lifelike, with Sugimoto’s portraits adding to the confusion with their air of the artificial, the staged and of Bloom’s “spectacular” as cited above.
Yet Sugimoto also delivers aesthetically beautiful work that feels incredible real – high quality portrait images that appear both contemporary and classic, with their harsh tones and technologically enhanced finish lending them an eerie stillness; one that commands a certain reverence of his subjects as we are enjoy our silent audience with icons of our time or from a time long gone, all frozen for our viewing pleasure in a peculiar time and space we can’t quite pinpoint.
Are you experienced?
The success of an individual waxwork be it firsthand in an attraction or in one of Sugimoto’s work also relies on the individual and their own experience and knowledge of the subject whose likeness has been captured.
This experience and knowledge is formed of what we know and understand prior to identifying the likeness as well as what we can gather about the person by viewing their waxwork and any accompanying information (such as their name, biographical information, height, their weight, their social status from the clothes they are wearing or even who they are positioned next to).
Memory plays a vital part in helping us gauge whether what we’re seeing is a valid representation of the waxwork, we recall instances where we have seen images of the celebrity – what they looked like when they last saw them, be it on a cinema screen, in print or on television – which again relates back to Scruton’s idea of how a photograph or moving image can only suggest what that person looks like if we actually experienced them in the reality we were being presented with.
As both a visitor to waxwork exhibitions and as a guide at Madame Tussaud’s, I always find it interesting to acknowledge a waxwork figure for the first time – initally identifying them and then recalling mental images of them in order to compare the images in my head with the figure presented to me in the present.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Salvador Dali but I have ‘met’ his waxwork figure (on New Year’s Day at Madame Tussaud’s Amsterdam in 2005, pictured right). Unlike the majority of celebrities featured in Madame Tussaud’s, Salvador Dali did not sit for his wax portrait. Therefore it is the most accurate a likeness that we will ever hope to have of Dali now that he is dead.
By stating it is an accurate likeness or representation of Dali, I am stating that it is an accurate representation of Dali based on knowledge I have of the artist, gathered from visual material such as photos and film footage and other information seen prior to my encounter with his wax portrait. By telling you this, I am presenting another version of truth and reality based on both my experience of meeting Dali’s waxwork (“It really looked like him”) and my own knowledge and experience of Dali (“It really looked like him because I know what he looked like.”)
Of course, you may beg to differ and think it looks like nothing like him. But then you weren’t standing where I was standing on New Year’s Day in Amsterdam in 2005 (my reality at the time) and can only go by the photo I’ve presented of him here for you (your current reality).
Face to face
As a guide I often worked at press launches when the celebrity sitter was invited to unveil their waxwork to the press. This always provided a unique experience as the real life and life-like literally came face to face, providing the press with a fascinating photo opportunity. The press would snap away and gather an array of curious photographs that would then appear in the evening press, allowing readers to gaze upon yet another take of truth and reality – of a real-life celebrity, standing next to a waxwork representation of the same celebrity, in a photo that can only suggest yet another version of reality that the reader would have seen if they were there at the time.
To conclude, examining photography as a representative form alongside the similar values and objectives of a waxwork allows one to explore a whole range of ideas of what it means to represent the truth, and how that truth is interpreted when one takes into account other factors such as individual experience, memory, notions of authenticity, time and space. By examining these in line with theories surrounding the truth and representational value within a photo, one can begin to understand how, as an artist, one can expand these concepts further to create new meaning.
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work on waxworks and museum exhibits coupled with my own experiences of waxworks (plus the photos used as an example here) also allow further discussion of how both real life and the lifelike attempt to convince the viewer of a singular reality and a definitive truth when in fact, what is being presented (via a two-dimensional image such as a photograph, or a three-dimensional object like a waxwork) may in fact be one version of a number of possible truths and realities, leaving the viewer with the exciting task of discovering just where their truth and reality lies.
Battle of Britain at Madame Tussaud’s video newsreel film; 1969. [online] Available at http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=46060 [Accessed 9 January 2011].
Bloom, M.E., 2003. Waxworks: A Cultural Obsession, Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press. Available at:
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=OYNh6UuVZnwC&lpg=PP1&ots=YWE_R9mAhU&dq=michelle%20bloom%20waxworks&pg=PR13#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 8 January 2011].
Pilbeam, P., in Turner, M.; 2003. Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks, The Independent (online) 4 March 2003. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/madame-tussaud-and-the-history-of-waxworks-by-pamela-pilbeam-599465.html [Accessed 8 January 2011].
Scruton, R., 1983. Photography and Representation. In Lamarque, P., and S, Haugom Olsen, ed. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition: An Anthology. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 359-373. Available at:
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=bNrqf4yxchEC&lpg=RA3-PT237&ots=eSgd8MORQ1&dq=roger%20scruton%20aesthetics%20of%20photography&pg=RA3-PT237#v=onepage&q=roger%20scruton%20aesthetics%20of%20photography&f=false [Accessed 8 January 2011].
Sugimoto, H., n.d. Dioramas. [online] Available at: http://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/diorama.html [Accessed 9 January 2011].
Sugimoto. H., n.d. Portraits. [online] Available at: http://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/wax.html [Accessed 9 January 2011].