Much like we like to take pictures and make sculptures of each other, the Egyptians tried to portray the human figure in sculpture and paint. See this example below, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, AKA the Met. She is tall and slim, with great posture and huge eyes.
QUESTION: What words would you use to tell me about this picture?
FOLLOW-UPS TO GET THE IDEA OUT: How does the picture feel? What do you notice about the figure?
WORDS WE EXPECT: Stiff, uptight, bored, regal, upset, tense, a little weird
The Ancient Egyptians were trying to figure out a bunch of stuff all at once: how to carve stone, and other technical ideas; how to observe the world around them; and how to make the images they created fit into a symbolic belief system. The textures on the dress are very stylized as is her pose.
The Ancient Egyptians made art because they had a very complex religious system and these images served a variety of purposes in that system. That is why the figure is stylized. But there is more going on here. This figure is made of wood and is around 4,000 years old. It survived because it was buried with it’s master and preserved in a hot dry environment underground. A pyramid or other burial location. She represents a member of the estate of the person who was buried.
This next figure was Greek and it is (only) 2200 years old. Let’s look at some similarities and differences between the two. We will look at the stylistic as well as the
Ok, let’s talk about this one. It is The Nike of Samothrace. She is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
QUESTION: What words would you use to describe it, just like we did for the first image?
(SAME Follow-up if needed)
WORDS WE EXPECT: cool, relaxed, natural… etc.
PUT PRINT OUTS OF BOTH IMAGES.
OK, so let’s look at how these images are the same and different.
(SAME: subject is a woman, shifting her weight from one foot to the other)
(DIFFERENT: Aesthetic stuff, Time period if they know, color painted, incidentally the Greek statues were probably painted but being kept above ground instead of in hermetically sealed pyramids, the paint has long since peeled. Some have traces though. The Egyptian Statue is wood, the Greek is stone)
DRAW IN THE HIP and SHOULDER lines… THEN THE S CURVE for the body.
The Egyptian figure has almost perfectly horizontal hips and shoulders even though her foot is forward, so the lines on the hip and shoulder end up making a sideways “H.” The Greek Figure the shoulders and hips are very slanted. When you connect the dots and trace the legs, you end up with what we call an S curve.
It’s more a more natural pose because when we put a foot forward, we actually shift our weight from one foot to the other. But it is harder to balance an asymmetrical figure when you are carving a stationary object because once you take away or reduce stone or wood from a block, you cannot put it back, so if you take away too much from someplace the whole thing falls over and you could lose hours and hours of work.
The fluidity of the style and the reason the Classical statue looks more “cool” is because of the way the artists figured out how to balance that shifting of weight that we do naturally with our moving bodies. The S curve creates movement because some of the body is relaxed and some of it is tensed to support the weight.
Shift your weight from right foot to left.
Try to pose like the Ancient Egyptian figure
Try to pose like the Nike of Samothrace
Then move your left foot and feel which parts of your body shift.
How far can you lean over and what parts of your body move to keep your balance when you do that?
Which muscles are relaxed while you balance and which ones are tense (the ones you are using)?
Finally, stand against the wall and lean forward as far as you can. How far can you go without moving your arms away from your sides?
Can you imagine doing this out of stone?
One thing to remember, if any of you are dancers, this will make sense: For your center of gravity to hold you up, your weight bearing ankle is almost always directly under your neck. Also generally speaking, the part of your body that is bearing the load of your motion is the part that is stiff.
So the Ancient Egyptians and Classical Greeks came up with a couple different solutions. In part because of the different purposes for these statues. First, aesthetically, both design solutions were related to the religious and spiritual needs of their society. Second as you have seen by paying attention to your body, balance is
The Egyptians had a very compartmentalized religion in which the Pharaoh was the only go-between and protector of the people on their journey through life and death. So the Egyptians wanted a very stylized image, which is apparent in the way it’s painted and carved, and its very graphic nature. The Greeks, well, you only have to read a few ancient tales to know that the Ancient Greeks had a much more human relationship to their gods. So the Nike of Samothrace is very dynamic. The folds of cloth give extra movement to her body, she is very real and very lifelike. The Egyptian dress was also pleated, but the pleats are contained and very straight, looking almost like scales in this image.
The second reason that the two ancient cultures had different solutions was technical. The Ancient Egyptians had not quite figured out how to balance a statue the way people balance, and a few centuries later, working off the knowledge from Egypt and other neighboring cultures, the Greeks had progressed in their technical ability.
Much like you guys know how to do stuff to computers that didn’t even exist when I was your age. Without the people who built the computers who are my age and older, you would not be able to do those things, but we may not be able to figure out the way to do it as quickly as you!
Lastly, most of the sculptures we have shared with you are far far away, but we have some statues of dancers that are at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and at the DIA that you can go and look at. (I have not verified that they are on display, but the Degas (or a very similar one) is almost always out at the DIA, and the Rodin sculptures were there last time I was at UMMA).
These works are cast bronze, which is very different than stone, and has different material properties. To make casts in bronze, one usually first makes an image out of wax and other softer easier to mold materials, then follows a bunch of different steps to cast it into bronze.
Using what we have experienced with our senses is the artist’s way of figuring out how to make things balance. Knowing weights and textures and feeling the structural strength with our hands, but in the engineering design process there are other ways to measure that using Mathematics and Physics.
For more images pertaining to contrapposto, I’ve compiled a pinboard on Pinterest with additional images. The images above are women, because this was written to support the Art of Engineering for Girls at FLY Children’s Art Center. But the images on the pinboard are of both genders.