The counterpoise or chiasmus in art | Yesterday and today. We are in the 5th century BC and Greek sculptors have found a way to give their statues an unprecedented sense of life. Contrapposto is the name that will later be given to the pose that made it appear that a standing figure was about to move and come to life.
The term contrasted in Italian is synonymous with counterpoise. And in art it means balance or contrast. For example, contrast between movement and standing still. But also the contrast between one part of the body and the other. In fact, the opposite is known above all in Italy also as chiasmus, from the Greek letter Chi χ which represents the counterpoise and balance par excellence.
Contrapposto in Greece in the 5th century BC
The development of the classical contraposition in the 5th century BC in Greece revolutionized the way in which sculptors could represent the human figure. An ancient example in which its effects can be clearly seen is the Doryphoros, or “Spear Bearer”, by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos (450-415 BC).
This sculpture has come down to us through Roman marble copies of the original bronze which unfortunately has now been lost. The sculptor Polykleitos decides in this sculpture not to show the young athlete as a symmetrical figure staring straight ahead like the previous Egyptian or Greek statues. Polykleitos shifts his subject’s weight onto his right leg. In this way, the right shoulder is slightly lower than the left, while his left leg, bent at the knee, with the foot just raised, creates a twist.
This movement passes through the body, as it rotates on the vertical axis of the spine and finally gives the sensation of movement to the whole figure. So the sculpture seems to be about to shift at any moment.
None of Polykleitos’ original sculptures and only a few fragments of his writings have survived. But the positive side is that the counterpoise like other great inventions of ancient Greece influenced the practice and theory of all sculpture in the following centuries.
Contrapposto or chiasmus in the Italian Renaissance
Even Roman artists have in fact used the contrapposum or chiasmus in art in their works. Some were Roman copies of ancient Greek sculptures, others original statues. And thanks to this habit, the contrast reached the others of the Renaissance in Italy in the 15th century.
While medieval statues tended to be made with very rigid and frontal poses, some Renaissance works begin to use the counterpoise. An example is San Marco di Donatello from 1411, preserved in the Church of Orsanmichele in Florence.
This work is a true masterpiece of innovation. Donatello, in fact, combines the traditional Christian representation of the saint and the classical Greek counterpart. and thus creates the perfect combination, symbol of the genius of the Renaissance.
But Donatello is not the only Renaissance artist to insert the contrast in his works. A century later, in 1505 even Michelangelo uses it. One of the most famous examples of contrast is in fact the Tomb of Julius II made by Michelangelo and preserved in the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. In this work the bodies of the sculptures of Rachel and Leah on the sides of Moses seem to move thanks to the counterpoise.
The counterpoise or chiasmus in art. Counterpoise in the nineteenth century
Counterpoise has become more and more widespread with the passage of time and from Michelangelo onwards many artists have used it. Obviously it is found mostly in sculpture but also some works of painting have inside them figures in poses that we could define as opposed. Despite this use in 360-degree art, the contrast remains a “technique” of representation of movement mainly in sculpture.
In the nineteenth century, the counterpoise was therefore now a convention in the sculpture of human figures. Artists used it and reused it in many public statues and in various national ones to represent heroes and winners of wars or musicians and poets.
Although it was born and spread from Greece to develop the sense of balance and movement of the sculptures, it is precisely in the nineteenth century that the meaning of the counterpoise begins to be reinterpreted.
And this reinterpretation comes from the works of a great sculptor who made the history of French art Auguste Rodin. Rodin has in fact used the counterpoise in several of his works to give not only movement but also and above all sensuality to his works. One of the most famous examples is certainly The Bronze Age of 1876. A different contrast from those of Greek sculptures. In fact, in this case the naked young man, instead of moving his legs, raises his arms. This movement can be considered a counterpoint but Rodin, as a genius, finds a way to represent movement and sensuality in sculpture.
Also in the works of other great artists of the nineteenth century, as in Degas’ dancers, these represent movement through variants of the counterpoise. For example, in several of his sculptures the dancers bring their arms back and their legs forward, still giving a sense of displacement.
The contrast in the twentieth century and in contemporary art
Even with the development of the new avant-gardes and with the revolution of the work of art of the twentieth century, the contrast remains widely used by sculptors.
In fact, some artists use Torso classical sculpture like Man Ray in his 1936Even if under a new key, however, the counterpoise is present. And the same can be said for works like Blue Venus Yves Klein’s 1962
An original use of the counterpoise is instead made in the twentieth century by an artist who has become famous for his video performances and installations: Bruce Nauman. In 1968 Nauman made some videos in which he walks in unconventional or exaggerated poses. Among these poses there is also Walking in contrast.
An Ancient Greek concept applicable almost exclusively to works of sculpture is taken up again. And its purpose, which is to give movement, is exaggerated to the point of making it a real movement.
From 5th century Greece to the present day, the counterpart or chiasmus in art is and will always be one of the privileged ways to represent life in works of sculpture. But rightly, artists of all ages have taken it up and used it to create different and always unique masterpieces.
Cover: (left) Polykleitos, Doryphoros, National Archaeological Museum, Naples – (right) Yves Klein, Venus in Blue, 1962