Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education
Pose refers to the way in which a figure is positioned in an artwork, or their body language. While a straightforward definition, artists rely on recognizable poses that they’ve tweaked (a change of medium or an added exaggeration) to convey their narrative. Whether specific within the cultural context or acknowledging a universal theme, a body’s pose also informs the mood, aesthetic, and meaning of the work. In the Western canon, there are multiple recognizable poses that artists have turned to, whether anatomically correct or not, to transform anonymous figures into a goddess or laud prominent persons. Understanding these classical poses, which contemporary artists continue to interpret, offers a richer historical and cultural context to both the artist and the work.
A composite pose, common in Near Eastern and Ancient Egyptian art, represents the body in an anatomically impossible twist. Showing the figure in profile, the head, hips, legs, and feet are turned to the side while the torso faces outward, combining two viewpoints into a single representation. It’s the seminal “walk like an Egyptian” pose! Used in stelae, reliefs, and wall paintings, many were found in tombs to tell the story of the deceased– and not meant to be public or on display. Therefore, a natural pose was not of the utmost importance to the narrative. In fact, this contortionist act is practical: it’s easier to draw noses and feet from the side and shoulders and eyes facing front. Static and timeless, the composite pose conveyed eternal life and an enduring legacy, a pose fit for funerary tombs and memorials like the one above, found in Nebamun’s tomb.
In his painting Symphony Fantastique, above, Julio de Diego’s shadowy human figures appear in composite form. How does this pose inform the narrative?
The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, were looking for drama and found it in the contrapposto pose (or counterpose), which captures the body in motion. Here, the figure creates an s-curve with their body, leaning all of their weight on one leg (the “engaged leg”) while their other, relaxed (“free leg”), is bent at the knee. We can see this pose in the sculpture above by Waldemar Raemisch. This stance ensures a curvy, hourglass shape as the head, shoulders, and torso tilt away from the straightened leg to create a dynamic twist. For the sculptors of ancient Greece, this pose turned the stationary marble Kouros sculptures, which placed their weight evenly on both feet, into living, breathing humans. Kouros weren’t intended as actual people but as ideal abstractions of youth, often left in temples as gifts to gods. For the Greeks, contrapposto represented a shift towards naturalism. Based on intense study of contours, proportions, and the muscles of the body, including how bones move beneath the flesh and how a body distributes its weight, artists began the practice of drawing figures from live models. In reality, the contrapposto pose results in a rather awkward limp; despite this, its ability to imbue marble and paint with dynamic stillness and life has ensured its continued use.
How has Margaret Burroughs used the contrapposto pose in her linocut Black Venus? Venus emerges from the sea on the backs of two fish as angels fly around her. The goddess of love and beauty, her sensual pose draws attention to her curves and figure.
If you maintain your contrapposto but lift your right arm and raise your index finger you enter adlocutio (orator) pose! A pose for leadership, the raising of the right arm is a symbol of both righteousness and divinity as well as power and control. This power pose draws the attention of a since dispersed crowd or troop of soldiers and is utilized by leaders as visual propaganda for military dominance and prowess. It’s also often seen in religious artworks; Christ in the middle, often with his hand raised, while the blessed rise to heaven on his right and the damned fall on his left. These historic images were visual reminders to the often illiterate congregants of what would befall them if they did not follow the church tenants. Political leaders recognized this iconography and wielded it for themselves, using their raised right arm to proclaim their divine status of kingship and elevated status among the elite. The orator pose is also present in some marriage portraits, where the man stands to the right of his wife, signaling his elevated status in the relationship. John Bower photographed a sculpture in a cemetery striking the adlocutio pose–is she a religious figure leading the dead to their final resting place or in remembrance of a female leader?
Another deviation from contrapposto, the pudica (modest) pose was pioneered by Praxiteles to justify his depiction of a nude woman as she moves to cover herself with her garments. Used predominantly to showcase Venus–the Roman goddess of beauty and fertility–it draws attention to her breasts and reproductive organs, either sitting or standing, and is integral to the narrative. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Titian’s Venus of Urbino are easily recognizable examples. In place of modesty these depictions emphasize feminine beauty and sexuality and, hence, women’s fertility. Depictions of Adam and Eve often place Eve in this pose to dramatize her shame and portray the inherent weakness of the female sex. The body language ensures the blame is placed on Eve, not Adam. This posture, which quickly became standard iconography for the nude female in art, purposefully drew attention to the flesh on exhibit. Is she flaunting her sexual prowess, covering herself in shame, or attempting to avert unwanted eyes and attention? Look back to Margaret Burroughs Black Venus. How does she embody both contrapposto and pudica?
While contrapposto is a soft-curve, the serpentine pose dramatically spirals the body on its central axis, presenting a coiled body to show exaggerated tension and movement. In place of naturalism, the serpentine expresses an unnatural gesture that pushes the lower limbs in one direction with the torso spinning in the opposite. The end result: to place the focus on the movement. Showcased in Laocoon and his Sons, the serpentine pose highlights the suffering and physical pain endured by Laocoon as he and his sons are attacked by sea serpents. Artists further dramatize this pose by lengthening limbs and placing them in extreme twists and turns. Creating tension in addition to agony, the serpentine glamorizes the violent nature of humans. Appealing to Baroque and Mannerist artists, it pushed the body from a single step to an entire story.
The first reclining nude, or odalisque, was painted in 1510 by Renaissance artist Giorgione. Building from the pudica, Sleeping Venus (1508-1510) covers herself with one hand while relaxing atop drapery amongst a verdant landscape. Completely nude, the odalisque offers her body to the male gaze–fully exposed and outstretched. Its eroticism was accepted because Venus is a goddess and not a “real” person. As artists continued to experiment with the pose it moved from inherent voyeurism to demonstrate confidence and sexual liberation. The female nudes make eye contact with their viewer, owning their beauty and ability to capture attention. Many art historians, however, recognize that the odalisque is a fantasy of the male imagination. Ultimately this pose, and its sexualization of the model, garnered reproach, even leading to the Guerilla Girls using it on a poster asking: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”
Analyzing the body language, or pose, of the figure(s) in a painting or sculpture can help the viewer contextualize the work and better understand it. Is the figure asserting their leadership or beauty? Is the man contorting his body that way to showcase his physical prowess or to dramatize pain? Is the artist connecting to past techniques and styles because they know our eyes will recognize them and bridge the narratives? The next time you visit us, pay close attention to the form the figures take: what are they telling you by how they move (or don’t!)?