Strike a Pose: Contrapposto
Each installment of Strike a Pose features one of art history’s most seminal postures. Mediums range from sculpture to oils and everything in between. (See all installments.)
This week we discuss the meaning behind one that got sculpture moving: Contrapposto (explore the corresponding playlist).
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Great innovations in art aren’t so different from those in tech. When an idea first emerges into the public consciousness, it’s a wild thing. It’s hard to fathom how beneficial it can be, how exactly it will evolve. Then people put it to use, explore what it can do, apply it to what we knew before it came along. And then, eventually, it is subsumed into what we take for granted, no longer an innovation at all. This path is true for what might one of the most revolutionary developments in sculpture: motion.
Long ago, statues looked stiff and rigid, like a finishing school pupil with a book atop her head. In Archaic Greece, korous (a youthful nude boy, usually of noble rank) and kore (the female equivalent, but clothed) weren’t meant to depict actual people, but an ideal abstraction of youth: highly moral, physically beautiful, and noble. These subjects may have looked stoic to the point of unnatural, but realism was besides the point.
Then, around 480 BC, came Kritios Boy, named after its supposed sculptor, the Athenian Kritios. (It’s worth noting that some critics, such as Susan Woodford, insist Kritios only copied earlier Bronze statues.) Instead of giving the legs symmetry, this pose, called contrapposto, puts all of the body’s weight on one. This pushes the pelvis diagonally upwards (usually on the left side), loosening the right buttock, curving the spine, and dipping the shoulder line to the left. The subject looks at once relaxed and in motion. And thus began a revolution.
Donatello, Instagram and beyond
Albeit, it’s hard to imagine a world where motion was never incorporated into art, where all works depicted upright, stoic subjects. But soon after Kritios Boy, contrapposto became vital in the most eminent Classical works—such as (the Greek) Polykleitos’ Discophoros and Doryphoros, and (the Roman) Praxiteles’ Hermes and the Infant Dionysus.
It’s useful to think of a pose as a rulebook. Works are recognizably contrapposto as long as they follow a few requirements. Beyond that, artists are free to innovate as they wish, filling the form with their own artistic mandate. When Classical contrapposto was revived by Renaissance artists, it was done to an exaggerated (sometimes excessive, in the case of Mannerism) degree, appearing not just in sculpture (such as David by Donatello) but in painting as well (such as The Sistine Madonna by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, and Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer).
The pose feels familiar, modern even, and there’s good reason why it has persisted to the present day. (It even received some recent attention thanks to one celebrity’s post on Instagram.) It’s organic, a natural inclination of the human body. Historians also note the nuance involved in the posture, that minute tweaks can result in it becoming more lifelike and expressive, even offering a window into the subject’s psychological disposition.
What made contrapposto revolutionary—what paved the way for other postures—is its capturing of movement. This we take for granted when we see derivational works by Michelangelo Buonarroti or Leonardo da Vinci. It is a miracle of art history that it all began with a work hardly as famous, its creator still disputed today.