Video transcript

(jazz piano) - [Voiceover] Contrapposto. It's a word that gives people problems. - [Voiceover] Because it's Italian, it's not English? - [Voiceover] And it's a word that's just unfamiliar, but it means something very simple. It is the pose that the human body takes when it is relaxed and standing. - [Voiceover] So it's a standing pose. We can say that, first of all, number one, but it's relaxed, and naturalistic. - [Voiceover] And if you think about the way that you stand, you generally, when you're relaxed, put all your weight on one leg. Then when that leg gets tired, you shift your weight to the other leg. - [Voiceover] So, it's a standing pose that's relaxed and naturalistic, and you have your weight on one leg and the other leg is not weight-bearing. Clearly, looking at these two images that we have on the screen, one of the figures is standing in contrapposto and the other isn't. I think it's pretty clear, right now, that this figure is the one standing in contrapposto. - [Voiceover] Right. That's the Doryphoros. This is by an artist whose name is Polykleitos. It's ancient Greek, both figures are ancient Greek, but this figure is from the Early Classical Period. By this time, artists had figured out how to observe the body and represent it naturalistically. Their culture was one that wanted art that represented the naturalistic body. - [Voiceover] So it's the ancient Greeks who invented this pose in the West. That means they are the first culture to create in the West naturalistic images of the human figure. - [Voiceover] Before that, the Greeks had produced a series of standing figures like the kouros that we see on the left. - [Voiceover] So this is earlier. This is from the 500s B.C.E., from a period we call the Archaic. This is a figure which is not standing in contrapposto and we can tell because his weight is equally placed on both feet. One foot is in front of the other, but his weight is equally placed. - [Voiceover] And the knees are locked. Look at that. It looks so wildly uncomfortable, doesn't it? - [Voiceover] He looks like he's in some sort of performance or parade or something. - [Voiceover] He looks frozen, absolutely. Whereas the figure on the right, the body is so much more complicated, if you look at it. It seems so much more natural, as if he's taking a step forward. - [Voiceover] So we can say that this figure looks like he can move, so he's capable of movement. This figure looks like he's frozen and he's stiff, and in a way, kind of timeless, right? He seems like he could be here tomorrow in this position, yesterday in this position. There is something that transcends time about this position. - [Voiceover] And that's appropriate because we think this figure was originally a grave marker. - [Voiceover] Right. So, in a way, it transcends time. In a way, this figure does not exist in our world the way that this figure does. - [Voiceover] Let's take a look at the kouros for a moment a little more carefully, and see if we can figure out what actually causes that sense of timelessness. For me, I think, it's the symmetry of the body. - [Voiceover] So let's write down that word. because that's a kind of word that we don't use every single day. Symmetrical means that if you cut something down the middle, one side is the same as the other. - [Voiceover] So a kind of mirror, a left-right mirror. - [Voiceover] So if we drew a line down the center of his body, one side would essentially be the same as the other, except for that left foot being a little bit forward. - [Voiceover] So it is not a representation of a person in the world, as you said. It is much more this notion of a kind of ideal figure. Now what's interesting is the figure on the right is also an idealization, but a more complicated kind of idealization. - [Voiceover] What do you mean by the figure on the left being ideal? - [Voiceover] I think that it is the idea of a human as opposed to a representation of a human. Look, for instance, at the eyes. You have these big almond shapes. Now we know they're in the place of the eye so that we know they represent the eye. But they don't look like human eyes. - [Voiceover] So in a way, this is a symbolic representation of a human being and not a real representation. - [Voiceover] When the artist was producing the kouros, I don't think they were looking at a model. They didn't need to because, you're right, they were representing through symbol. But on the right side, I think that the artist was definitely observing the human body and looking specifically at the forms, at the muscles, at the bone structure of the body. - [Voiceover] So we can say that this is a sculpture based on the observation of the human body, and how human bodies look when they move. - [Voiceover] And that's essential. Contrapposto is the result of studying the complex way in which our body aligns when we stand on one leg. - [Voiceover] Can you unpack that a little? - [Voiceover] Sure. Let's take a look at the Doryphoros, at The Spear-Bearer, on the right by Polykleitos. What you see is a figure that is asymmetrical, as you said, in a sort of wonderfully complex way. Take a look at the ankles for a moment. The left ankle is up, and you can draw an axis line right through the ankles. The axis line of the knees is in opposition to that. The axis line of the hips is parallel to the axis line of the knees. Sometimes, in some representations of contrapposto, the shoulders are in opposition to the hips and the knees, although more slightly. And in this case, we have the figure looking to the right. Now this has some important ramifications for the representation of the body. If you look at the kouros for a moment, the height of the waist on the left is the same as the height of the waist on the right. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] If you look at the Doryphoros on the right side, you can see that the weight-bearing leg has a hip that juts up, it pushes upward, and that compresses the side. - [Voiceover] Mm-hmm, so this side of his body is shorter, and this side of his body is longer. - [Voiceover] Because his left side where the free leg is, allows the hip to sag, and so there's a kind of hanging and a kind of expansion, extension, of the side. - [Voiceover] Yup. - [Voiceover] And so the result is that you actually have a kind of swaying of the vertebrae, and you have, then, a kind of complex alignment that results from this opposition of one side of the body to the other. - [Voiceover] To me, it's fascinating that the Greeks were the first culture in the West to decide to make a human figure who existed like we do in the world. We breathe, we move, we sense what's around us. The figure of the kouros doesn't look as though it's engaging with the world around it at all. - [Voiceover] There is a sense that the Doryphoros on the right is responding to stimuli around him. That is, he's turned his head to look at something. It is as if he is sentient. He is responding to the world. - [Voiceover] He's thinking. - [Voiceover] Absolutely. - [Voiceover] And I think that the kouros doesn't seem to be thinking in the same way that we do. - [Voiceover] That's right. The kouros is an object of our observation, whereas the Doryphoros seems as if he has taken on a life of his own in some way. - [Voiceover] But there's a kind of sympathy that happens with the Doryphoros, because when we look at him, we look at ourselves. When we look at the kouros, we don't quite see ourselves, or we see a kind of different version, perhaps, of ourselves. - [Voiceover] I think we see a different kind of ideal. I think we see, perhaps, a representation of ourselves in another world. - [Voiceover] So what is it about ancient Greek culture that makes them take this humongous leap? I mean, it's a small thing, a bent knee, and so you would think, "Well, why didn't "anyone come up with that sooner?" In art history we know that artists in cultures make things that are reflections of the values of the culture, so we know that before the 400s there just wasn't the need to make a figure like the Doryphoros. So what happens in the 400s? That's the meat of the art history question. - [Voiceover] Well, if we look at what happens in Greek culture outside of the visual arts, we see an explosion in literature, we see an explosion in philosophy, we see a culture that is self-aware and that is pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. - [Voiceover] Yeah, I think there's a real interest in the Classical Period in expanding human knowledge based on our own observations of the world, a kind of confidence in human ability to understand the world as it exists, not to say this is some unexplained phenomenon that the gods created and all we can do is sort of pray and hope it all works out okay, but a world that human beings have some control over and some innate ability to understand. - [Voiceover] One of the clichés about Greek culture is that the Greek gods and goddesses are a reflection of all the complications of human life. - [Voiceover] And they are! They're just like us. - [Voiceover] And so we really have within this Greek culture the idea of human capability, human achievement, at its center. (jazz piano)