Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London was one of my favorite places when I was a kid. Being dragged to museum after museum was usually bearable, but I would breathe a sigh of relief when Madame Tussaud’s was on the agenda. That I was looking at art never occurred to me, though. The lifelike sculptures, the Chamber of Horrors, including a particularly chilling wax rendition of The Death of Marat (painting of French revolutionary murdered in his bath, below), did not leave room in my child’s mind for thinking about art.
It turns out that the process for making wax sculptures today is relatively straightforward, if time-consuming. At Madame Tussaud’s, the museum staff take measurements of the person for whom they’re creating a likeness, make a clay model and a steel frame, then a mold is made and hot wax is poured in to it, hair is inserted strand by strand, eyes and teeth are added, and paint is applied. Like I said. Straightforward. Though in the past it must have been more difficult, wax always been particularly conducive to creating figures.
The real Madame Tussaud got her start making wax portraits of celebrities of the time, such as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin. She went on to make wax death masks of beheaded aristocrats during the French Revolution, including Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Marat himself. The wax “masks” were carried through the streets of Paris by revolutionaries as both a “let that be a warning to you” and as trophies.
It really should have occurred to me before now that the wax sculptures are portraits, although in my defense, we don’t usually think of portraits as being created for entertainment purposes. But this fact still allows them to be portraits, doesn’t it? I mean, take a look. This is a portrait:
I haven’t been to Madame Tussaud’s in years, but if the photos online are any indication, it’s now full of celebrities (including both Bollywood and Hollywood actors), though there are some historical figures. Take a look at our old friend Pablo:
I may be opening a can of worms here. Portraits can be really complicated, raising questions about why they were created (propaganda? devotional images? remembrances? marriage contracts?), or if they were actually meant to represent a specific person or that person’s office (Egyptian pharaohs, for example), to name just a couple of issues. And that, in my opinion, is what makes them fascinating. Wax sculptures like those at Madame Tussaud’s don’t raise the same kinds of issues, though they may raise others, like how is it decided who will be represented there? How are the exhibits designed? How are decisions made about when a sculpture is taken off display? I don’t want to take away from the fun with these questions, though. How fun is it to take your picture with a realistic wax figure of Queen Elizabeth or Justin Bieber or Michael Jackson or George Clooney? How about the Beatles or Amy Winehouse or even Nelson Mandela? You’re allowed to touch them, put your arms around them, and snap photos to your heart’s content. Pretty cool. Popping up between these two (below) in a photo would really make me laugh. Maybe a visit is in order!