noun ( pl. -trapposti |-trəˈpästē|) Sculpture
an asymmetrical arrangement of the human figure in which the line of the arms and shoulders contrasts with while balancing those of the hips and legs.
contrapposto (kōn’trə-pōs’tō) n.
The position of a figure in painting or sculpture in which the hips and legs are turned in a different direction from that of the shoulders and head; the twisting of a figure on its own vertical axis.
Those definitions are from the New Oxford American Dictionary and Answers.com, respectively. (Wikipedia had a good entry too but I got tired of copying and pasting). Now if an art model was writing the definition it’s likely that a generic and uninspired explanation would be offered: “standing pose”. BO-RING! Yes, of course it’s a standing pose, but it’s much more than that. It’s the human body in a natural stance, displaying shifting weight with muscles tensed on one side and relaxed on the other. It shows that we have movement in our bodies at all times. The word, in Italian, means “counterpoise”.
How often do you find yourself standing with your hips and shoulders perfectly squared? Hardly ever. Only soldiers standing at attention do that when their drill sergeant is yelling in their faces. But for the rest of us, waiting on line at the post office, standing in a subway car, etc, it’s the natural action of the human body – and the muscles within – to shift weight. And voila! You’re doing contrapposto. (See, it’s not just for art models!) Now a really great contrapposto has a dynamic twist in the torso – the body turning on its vertical axis, as the definition says.
*Just a note- contrapposto doesn’t have to mean standing. But in art modeling circles it usually does. So for the purpose of this post, we’ll consider it standing.
I have done many, many contrappostos, and I have learned to appreciate them. I’ve seen right before my eyes what an invaluable learning tool it is for artists. I’ve seen them measure and measure and measure my proportions – until they get them right. I won’t lie. Contrappostos can be very strenuous if held for a four hour session. Hell, models have done standing poses for two or three week painting classes. Sculpture can go on for months! I kid you not. And when you start to feel that insidious, dull pain in your hip flexor or, if the twist is deep, your oblique muscle, one is tempted to beg the class for mercy!
My friend, the artist Dan Gheno, asks me to do contrappostos and I am more than happy to oblige. It’s largely through Dan’s classes that I’ve developed a deep understanding of the value of standing poses. Nothing makes for a better figure study than a great contrapposto. Nothing illustrates basic human anatomy better than a great contrapposto. I believe, honestly, that it is well worth doing a standing pose for it’s classic presentation, statuesque appearance, and it’s powerful – yet graceful – depiction of the human body.
What better way to epitomize this than with the most famous contrapposto of all time. Here it is to perfection, in Michelangelo’s David:
One more for the road. This is an exquisite drawing by Raphael, in which he copied Da Vinci’s famous painting of “Leda” from Greek mythology. I was going to post Leonardo’s but I love this piece, done in brown ink, 16th century. Another lovely contrapposto. Look at the shoulders in relation to the hips. Beautiful.