The Significance of Contrapposto in Art
Sculptural revolution expressed by a twist in the human body
How does a person look when they are stood upright? In Egyptian sculpture, the answer to this question emphasised the natural symmetry of the human body. The “correct” way to view an Egyptian sculpture was front-on, in order to see the natural balance of the idealised human figure, with even shoulders, symmetrical arm and level hips.
These traits passed onto Greek sculpture. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of the development of Greek sculpture was the inception of a new type of posture. It was subtle at first, but it was to have an enormous impact on the course of Greek art — and the course of Western art that followed.
Known since the Renaissance as contrapposto, this nuanced but fundamental invention offered a turning point in the course of naturalistic representation.
Look at this statue of a kouros (a nude male youth) known as the Kritian Boy. See the way the weight of the body rests on one leg instead of two. The left leg stands upright, carrying the weight of the upper body, whereas the right leg is more relaxed and gently bent at the knee. This statue is one of the earliest surviving examples of contrapposto in Greek art, made in around 480 BC.
The effect of this imbalance of weight is to bring about a slight twist in the figure’s hips, so that instead of appearing to stand to attention, the figure has a more relaxed feel.
This example comes from what is known as the “Severe” stylistic period of Greek sculpture; it also points towards the future. The art that followed moved away from such rigid postures, and the contrapposto technique was used as the fundamental method of freeing up the feel of sculptured figures.
The contrapposto technique can be more readily seen in this slightly later sculpture, attributed to the Greek sculptor Polykleitos. The image shown below is a marble Roman copy made after the bronze original, which has been subsequently lost.
This statue shows a spear carrier, most likely an ideal Olympic athlete. The distribution of weight, being borne on one leg whilst the other is relaxed, is more pronounced in this statue: you can see how the asymmetry of the legs instigates movement throughout the rest of the body. The hips tilt, thereby causing the torso to squeeze on one side and open on the other. In this way, broader symmetry gives way to a more flexible pose overall; one arm is raised (holding the missing spear) whilst the other hangs down to one side. The head is turned as if gazing into the distance. The sculpture can be viewed from many angles — seen “in the round” — and still deliver its full impact.
The development of contrapposto was related to the Greek’s interest in the nude human body and in the virtues of athletic achievement and noble courage. The success of contrapposto comes from the manner in which muscles can be seen to tense or relax across the landscape of the body in a naturalistic fashion.
These ideals concerning the human body passed onto Roman artists, who looked back on Greek art with deep veneration. Yet after the decline of the Roman Empire, the contrapposto technique was more or less lost or forgotten.
It was only during the Italian Renaissance that the classical pose was explicitly revived. Taking inspiration from Roman sculptures that we are being unearthed across Italy at the time, Italian sculptors reawakened and the method. Indeed, contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “counterpoise” and was coined in the time of the Renaissance.
Perhaps the most famous sculpture that makes use of contrapposto is Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, made in around 1504 and now housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.
In this statue, the contrapposto style has been elaborated and exaggerated. David’s left leg is emphatically relaxed, adding further weight onto the right leg. The usual tilt of the hips is there; along with it, the right arm hangs long, almost heavily, so that the entire torso and shoulder-line leans to one side. In all, the arrangement is asymmetrical yet harmonised: the line of the shoulders contrasts with the line of the of the hips, yet the overall balance survives.
The brilliance of the posture is in the psychological meaning of the work. David, the slayer of the giant Goliath, stands brooding with his slingshot over his shoulder. The relaxed posture — underpinned by the contrapposto movement — combines with a gentle s-shape in the body to give a sense of serene courage predicated on muscular strength.
My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m an art historian, critic and the author of How to Read Paintings. (Click link for Kindle, Apple, Kobo and other e-reader devices).
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