Unconventional Figures: Exploration of the Pose

Rosenberg & Co.
Nov 11, 2020 4:34PM

From ancient times onward, a subject’s pose has been used by artists to enrich the context and impact of a work. Artists of the twentieth century were no exception and utilized pose to harken back to classical motifs—imbuing their work with a natural sense of dynamism and emotion—or provide reference to their contemporaries and own avant-garde intentions.

From left to right: Jean Hélion, Graham Sutherland, Hans Burkhardt, Jean Lurçat, Barbara Hepworth.

While countless poses exist, art historians identify several distinct categories. Perhaps the most foundational is contrapposto, in which a standing figure leans upon one leg, leaving the other either bent or taking a step forward, alluding to the movement the figure will make after the pose is complete. Giacomo Manzù’s sculpture Striptease (1981–2004) provides a perfect example of the contrapposto. The figure poses upright, with one leg subtly positioned in front of the other. Her left foot extends just beyond the base of the sculpture so that her toes hover over the edge— a sensual evocation of the next step the figure intends to take. Manzù also references the iconography of the Venus Pudica, in which the goddess of love is depicted using her arms to cover her body. Historically representing both feminine modesty and sexuality, the pose is an apt reference for a figure model.

Another iteration of the goddess, the reclining Venus, popularized in works by Titian, Jean August Dominique Ingres, and Édouard Manet, is found in Femme nue allongée by Henri Laurens (1937). Despite the figure’s abstraction, its pose reveals Laurens’ interest in Greco-Roman subjects. In this work, he abstracts the traditional Venus into planes of yellow and simple black lines. Working fifty years later, Reuben Nakian similarly transformed the familiar iconographical poses of Venus to fit his artistic style. In Voyage to Crete (c. 1983), elements of the reclining Venus persist, but Nakian’s figure is far more sinuous and, detached from the background, she appears to glide across the composition. The engaged, curvilinear pose reflects the particular freedom and sensuality with which Nakian approached his re-interpretation of ancient mythologies.

Henri Laurens
Femme Nue Allongée, 1937
Rosenberg & Co.
Reuben Nakian
Voyage to Crete, ca. 1983
Rosenberg & Co.

Beyond depictions of Venus, figurative poses also provide a means for artists to relate to the canon of art history in a broader way. In the pastoral setting of Maurice Denis’ Allégorie de l'Ile-de-France (Sketch 1) (c. 1926), three figures, holding hands, appear to dance through the foreground of the painting. Their linked arms visually connect them to the pose often utilized when depicting the Three Graces, the mythological symbols of beauty, fertility, nature, and goodwill.

Maurice Denis
Allégorie de I'lle-de-France (Sketch 1), ca. 1926
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Jean Hélion’s Femme accoudée (1946) includes a solitary figure, head in hands with a forlorn expression. Her posture, and the resulting emotional impact, is deeply reminiscent of the pose used in depictions of melancholia, a state of being recognized in the Renaissance as belonging to the fashionably moody and depressive disposition of artists.

Barbara Hepworth’s drawing Crouching Figure (1948) features a female in a relaxed, serpentine pose as her arms reach over her legs and cause a slight twist in her torso. The serpentine figure is often related to Michelangelo’s sybils in the Sistine Chapel, who similarly extend their arms over their torsos and away from their bodies. Like the Renaissance master, Hepworth had a profound interest in studying the human anatomy and its various movements, which then informed her work as a sculptor.

Barbara Hepworth
Crouching Figure, 1948
Rosenberg & Co.
Hans Burkhardt
Untitled, 1939
Rosenberg & Co.

A serpentine figure can also be found in the foreground of Hans Burkhardt’s untitled drawing from 1937. The figure crouches in the middle of a group, each of whom exhibit active poses that cause them to merge with one another. To examine each individual figure, the eye is forced to travel in a circular fashion, ultimately enhancing the dynamic nature of the various poses. Similarly dynamic, Graham Sutherland’s work on paper, Project for Coventry (1950), features three abstracted figures who reach out to one another with extended arms. Seemingly detached from their background, the figures’ dramatic poses give them an ethereal quality.

A grouping of different poses that work together to convey movement is echoed in Jean Lurçat’s Les baigneuses (1933). Thinking, resting, changing, and walking away, together, the figures convey both the social and athletic energy often required for a day at the beach.

Grouped together, these works—and the many poses depicted in them— exhibit the limitless potential of the human body to communicate. Whether drawing upon ancient motifs or contemporary references, these artists utilized pose as a critical element of their subject and composition.

These works are included in the exhibition 'Unconventional Figures' now on view at Rosenberg & Co., New York, until December 12, 2020.

Rosenberg & Co.