Frozen emotions as a metaphor for being
There are six classic poses in art history that you can apply or should be well-acquainted with if you want to consciously create or understand a body in an image. I deliberately use the word "applying" because often the most famous poses in art history cannot be totally (re)constructed physically. Just try to recreate the pose of Michelangelo's David or Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Or sit back to mimic the Olympia by Édouard Manet (1832 - 1883). You will experience that these postures feel very different from the way they look. I read these classic poses as visual vocabulary. You often see these forms reflected in the way emotions are translated within highbrow arts that have an important visual and narrative power; think of the port de bras in classical dance, or the emotional gestures in the opera, or the hand gestures of saints in Biblical images. The placement of an arm or a leg of an anonymous body can transform this into the imagination of an emperor or a goddess. Often these gestures have arisen from the stories behind old body language, and the gestures have become symbols of the imagery of their time.
The first pose was named Composite. The ancient Egyptians showed the body in impossible rotations and combined different perspectives within one posture. In this compound pose, the torso faces forward while the head, hips, and legs are shown in full profile. And although the figure's face looks to the side, the single, almond-shaped eye looks directly at the viewer. The reason here is practical and has to do with the technical mastery of the craft back then. Or rather the lack thereof. Noses and feet are easier to draw from the side, while eyes and shoulders are easier to straighten. It is the simplest way to copy a three-dimensional body on a plane, yet one of the most difficult postures to recreate with your own body. Small note: in the performing arts, particularly in classical ballet, you can see how the body is often represented and used in a one-dimensional plane. This is because of an initial technical deficiency – with regard to lighting equipment - at the time of the discipline's origin. Because the body could only be illuminated with candles from the front, the entire body had to be made visible by adjusting it. Shadow play and puppets are also reminiscent of the first forms of representation of moving bodies in a one-dimensional ‘screen’. The three-dimensional shape of a body in the performing arts can only be made visible once it can be illuminated or watched from different angles.
While this compound pose in the sculptural arts continues to portray an eternal stillness, the Greeks invented the Contrapposto. This translates to ‘counterpoise’, though, in simplified terms, you could translate it to "opposite". This pose gets the body moving. Bodies in Contrapposto appear to be caught in the middle of a step. They lean their entire body weight on one leg, while their other, more relaxed leg bends at the knee. The trunk, shoulders, and head tilt away from the straight leg, activating the body in a dynamic-looking twist. Artists use this pose to fool the viewer. At first glance you get the impression that a piece of marble or a piece of canvas is a living, breathing person. It is therefore a Greek classic.
If you are in Contrapposto, with your right arm lifted, and index finger raised, then you are in the third pose. This one has been given the name Adobutio. In art history, the commanding attitude of this posture is mainly reserved for leaders, especially when they approach their troops during battle. It is the orator's pose. But why do leaders raise their right arms instead of the left? In Western art traditions, the right side of the body symbolizes justice and divinity.
In 1506, Michelangelo discovered a buried masterpiece, Laocoön and his sons, in a Roman vineyard. The sculpture was a revelation to him, filled with dramatic curves in the bodies that were previously invisible in Western art as he knew it. Instead of a slight twist, Laocoön's entire body turned completely on its axis. His lower limbs push in one direction and his torso pivots the other way. This tortuous pose was given the name Figura Serpentinata. Suddenly, it became apparent that bodies can express much more emotional drama in a multidirectional motion than through the effect of a single moving step. Michelangelo often took inspiration from this Laoconian source in sculptures and paintings to come.
Aphrodite is considered the first monumental statue of a naked woman in Western art. For this woman, a new pose had to be concocted, along with a story to justify her unprecedented nudity. Or shall we call it a cover-up? Standing in Contrapposto, a bathing Aphrodite notices a stranger. The goddess recoils and covers her pubic bone with one hand, and with the other, she grabs a piece of clothing: the Pudica pose. Pudica can be translated as modest. It is associated with the erotic aspect of looking at a semi-dressed figure who does not seem to want to be seen. It is precisely by covering themselves that women in this pose attract "voyeurs". This pose became the symbolic gesture of protection against unwanted advances. Or did male sculptors make her consciously complicit in the seduction?
The exhibition entitled: "Manet: The Return to Venice" was organised with the Musee d'Orsay and featured 23 paintings and 20 sketches by the French painter (1832-1883). Pic by Naharnet Newsdesk.
The Renaissance painter Giorgione (1478 - 1510) painted the first lying naked woman. This Sleeping Venus covers her pubic area with one hand while she is sleeping. The image, this time made with a conscious erotic effect, designed to please its male viewers, was only permissible because it involved a supposedly ‘sleeping’ subject. Or perhaps because it wasn't a real woman, rather a goddess. From this work, it becomes clear in art history that giving a well-chosen title to an image can promote its meaning and legitimacy, whilst manipulating ideas surrounding the depicted body.
Colonization brought artists into contact with Eastern cultures. The monogamous Western artist cannot believe his eyes. Many become passionate about the Ottoman harem. Rather than depict Venus lying down, hiding her pubic area, artists begin to paint her in a similarly suggestive reclining pose. Olympia does not lie with her eyes closed, but looks straight into the eyes of viewers, confronting the viewer with his erotic desire.
In 1989 the Guerrilla Girls drew attention to this pose that, in Western art history, has become a trend. The Guerrilla Girls are a group of anonymous, feminist, female artists whose goal to date is to combat sexism in the art world. Members always wear gorilla masks to conceal their identity. The group was founded in New York in 1985 to highlight gender inequality in the arts. A primary example of their work is a poster they created that asks whether women must be naked to enter a museum. They revolt against a visual culture where imagery no longer has any relationship with the content of the body image itself. They want to confront viewers with the knowledge that unconsciously formed and generalised ideas surrounding women will persist, so long as artists continue to depict women in such ways.