Sunday, 9 December 2012

Fearful Symmetry: Contrapposto, The Legacy of the Greeks, Part 2.

Michelangelo. David, 1501-1504.
Greek. Marble statue of a Kouros (youth), ca, 590-580 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Greek. Marble statue of Kritios boy, ca, 5th century B.C. 
Greek. Hermes Carrying the Infant Dionysus, (Praxiteles?) ca. 350 B.C.


Symmetry of form is beautiful, but static; boring. Variety of form conveys life, a sense of movement. Contrapposto (Italian: opposite, counterpose) may be viewed as a flaw in symmetry; the life inherent in the form. Without these flaws the form is perfect, but dead. Within the flaws lies the gesture which imbues form with life. To my mind, contropposto is the balance achieved between beauty of form (symmetry) and variety of form (asymmetry).

The Greeks discovered this in the 5th century B.C. and the Italians rediscovered it during the renaissance. Note how the Greek depiction of the human form evolved over three centuries, from static to dynamic, and the beautiful interpretation of the concept in the hands of Michelangelo nearly two thousand years later.

Perfection is a wondrous state to strive for, but a fearsome state to attain. Perfection of form lacks grace (for want of a less ambiguous word), which I define as a pleasing arrangement of forms in a moment of balance.

Observe how the human form regains balance once it abandons symmetry. The weight shifts to one foot, putting that leg into tension, while the opposite leg is relaxed. The hips tilt in one plane, the torso in the opposite plane, and the head in the opposite plane, yet again.

Balance is maintained and a beautiful, graceful serpentine line flows through the body, from head to toe, uniting the forms. Symmetry, perfection, is lost, but grace is attained.

The Greeks did not invent contrapposto, nature did that. But they were the first to depict it in works of art and even now, two and a half millennia later, we cannot help but gaze upon them with inexplicable awe and wonder.