Maybe the most misunderstood of all art terms, mise-en-scène is used widely in film and art criticism, but it’s a tricky one to pin down with a singular definition. Indeed the renowned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once claimed the concept didn’t exist, then went on later to describe it as “seeing the invisible.”
First used in theater around the year 1833, this French compound literally translates to “placing on stage,” or “putting on stage,” and originally referred to all the visual effects overseen by a theater director—including compositional design, lighting, and the placement of actors. In other words, all of the visual features that set the scene, combining to form an atmosphere and sense of time and space.
Nowadays you might just as easily come across a description of a film’s mise-en-scène, referring to its look and feel, including framing and camera angles, with the metteur-en-scene, literally the “putter on stage,” referring to the director or auteur.
It can also apply to other forms of visual art; Roberta Smith, describing an exhibition of the Russian conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov’s work, once wrote, “This mise-en-scène exists in an eerie double time, evoking both the power of the former Soviet Union and the chaos that has overtaken its weakened components, now disunited.” Here’s Jerry Saltz using the term to describe one of Bjarne Melgaard’s chaotic, menacing installations at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 2013: “The mise-en-scène is some sex club for night hunters, fashion freaks, and those with toxic blood or addictions to kitsch.”
It’s a particularly apt turn of phrase when parsing work by photographers of a cinematic persuasion, artists who stage scenes and point toward loaded narratives, or directors who exercise auteurial control over all of the visual elements of a film.
In her “Kitchen Table” series of photographs, Carrie Mae Weems takes as her mise-en-scène a family kitchen table, staging tableaux that wryly comment on racial and gender stereotypes and undercut social documentary, calling attention to the constructed, objectifying nature of photographic imagery. Cindy Sherman, the reigning queen of staged photography, is famous for creating and embodying an encyclopedic range of characters and scenes, shot in various styles, while Alex Prager’s eery, retro photographs rely, in part, on their detailed mise-en-scènes to dictate the tone and atmosphere of scenes that are otherwise deeply ambiguous.