Larissa Pham’s column, Devil in the Details, takes a tight lens on single elements of a work, tracing them throughout art history.
It paid $12.50 an hour with clothes on, $25 with clothes off. The choice, I figured, was obvious.
My friend Gabriel had turned me on to the gig in college. We were always on the lookout for work that required minimal effort for maximal reward. And the job was easy, Gabriel assured me. All I needed was a robe, some slippers, and to shave, but only if I wanted to.
The first class, I was nervous. I had scraped off all my body hair with a razor, praying that my period wouldn’t arrive in the middle of Introductory Drawing, surrounded by Yale freshmen—I imagined that seeing a naked woman in a curricular context would be traumatizing enough. I timed my shower for a few hours before class, enough time for my hair to dry but not enough, I hoped, for me to accumulate any malodorous sweat. My worst fear was of being too bodily, of grossing out my classmates. But after a week or two on the job, I realized, none of that mattered. All the students were focused on their drawing skills, not my errant pubes or pits or back-of-knee sweat.
Some of the professors I worked with gave instruction, to varying degrees of specificity. There was the hot professor, for example, who asked for elbows akimbo, figure-four knees, poses with lots of negative space. There was the class that took place right before Halloween, so they dressed me up in a trash bag and put Gabriel in a plague-doctor mask. And then there was the professor who, long after costume party season had ended, handed me two wooden dowels and asked me to act like a dominatrix. For the most part, though, they all let me do I wanted, and I came to see myself—if I may be so bold—as a coteacher of sorts, guiding the class with each pose. I’d attended drawing classes myself, and knew how much more fun it was to work from a model who had a grasp of dynamic poses, how it isn’t the look of the model that matters but how the model moves.
Conveniently, my education—what little of it I hadn’t squandered by frying my brain with party drugs—provided a repository for dynamic poses: the sculptures and statues of art history. Here, from a former figure model and art history major, is a brief guide to figurative sculpture through the ages, should you ever find yourself naked but for a robe, slippers, and in need of a shave—but only if you want to.
A figure drawing session frequently starts with gesture drawings—quick, thirty-second poses, which allow the artists to warm up with looser, broader marks, filling up the page. For quick poses, emphasizing vertical and horizontal lines, one might draw on some early examples of figurative sculpture: Egyptian funerary statues, in standing and seated poses, like this one of Hatshepsut at the Met. The ancient Egyptians believed in life after death; the statues were intended to be images of the body that the immortal soul could return to. As such, they’re made to last forever: sturdy, straight-spined, shoulders and hips in perfect alignment. The funerary and religious statuary of the ancient Egyptians wasn’t dissimilar to that of the Archaic Greeks, whose kouros sculptures depicted beautiful male youths, their backs straight, weight evenly distributed, one foot extended aristocratically as if midstride.
Sometimes the warm-up is a slow, uninterrupted stretch of movement, lasting a few minutes. For those, I liked to think of myself as one of Matisse’s dancers, painted in 1909, more than three thousand years after King Hatshepsut’s statue was sculpted. The movement of the dance was the point: the curvilinear body twisting in air, the gestures blending into one another. In a drawing, daisy-chained on the page, the five dancers could be modeled by just one figure.
Following the gesture drawings, a typical class moves into poses of about one to five minutes each. These short poses provide freedom for the model to experiment—because they’re so quick, more complicated postures can be taken, like extending one’s arms overhead or stretching them out. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you know stillness can be deceptive. Before long, the body quakes: it craves support and balance. Sooner than expected, what seems like an easy gesture can become intolerable. At work on the model stand, I never knew exactly how long I could hold a pose; it was always a bit of a gamble. But I always looked forward to the short poses for that reason—relief was just around the corner.
After the Archaic period, the Greeks happily took to perfecting the proportions of human form, perfecting its depiction with their love of geometry and mathematics. During the Classical period, from the rigidity of the kouros sculptures sprang a more subtle, relaxed posture, the weight of the body unevenly distributed along the hips, which the Italians, during the Renaissance, would describe as contrapposto. The Kritios Boy sculpture, from about 480 BCE, is thought to be the earliest sculpture demonstrating this new stance, which the Greeks continued to hone into the Hellenic period. This slight curvature of the body made the figure look alluringly naturalistic, even sensual, the way a relaxed model might actually stand. Paradoxically, in practice, taking a contrapposto stance feels mannered; though it looks realistic, it feels performative.
On the model stand, I could take a graceful dancer’s stance, like one of the Three Graces in this Roman replica of a Hellenistic statue, perhaps draping my arm over a prop, like an unattended easel. Or maybe crouch low to the ground, my body twisted, like Aphrodite coyly adjusting her hair, in a typical depiction of the goddess.
Following the Classical period’s introduction of a more naturalistic understanding of the human body, the Hellenistic Greeks developed means of sculpting even more complex poses—the discobolus, or discus thrower, is a famed example that gave way to multiple copies in antiquity. A sculpture like the Townley Discobolus wasn’t intended to be wholly realistic as much as it was meant to convey strength and movement—a perfect posture for a short, dynamic pose. This emotive posturing—the twists and gestures of the body conveying pain, strength, or both—found a climax in Laocoön and His Sons, a monumental piece by the sculptors of Rhodes that was unearthed in 1506 and is now on display in the Vatican.
Here, the body is maximally expressive: the torso twists, one arm is pulled back in struggle while the other grasps at a snake. The piece is a narrative one, depicting the story of Laocoön, a Trojan priest who was punished—according to Sophocles, for breaking his celibacy; according to Virgil, for trying to warn the city of Troy about the Trojan Horse—by being killed with venomous, strangling snakes. On either side of Laocoön are his two sons, their postures emphasizing the family’s plight.
After the short poses, a figure drawing class might move into medium-length sittings, with poses held for anywhere from five to fifteen minutes. Something incredible happens when you’re still for that length of time: the mind goes peacefully, utterly blank. After two minutes, the body settles. If something twinges, it will continue to twinge, but become bearable. After five, the brain stops racing. After ten, all that’s left is a buzzy, euphoric stillness. On those afternoons in the basement where drawing classes were held, I’d settle into a fifteen-minute pose and, when the timer rang, feel like I’d blacked out onstage under bright lights. I’d come back to consciousness just enough to put on my robe and stretch.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire and the deeply Christian medieval era, which shunned “graven images” in favor of geometric abstractions and symbolic illustration, European artists rediscovered, and consequently romanticized, the art of Greco-Roman antiquity. During the Renaissance, Western Europe was experiencing a newfound period of humanism (that humanity’s potential for genius might be appreciated at the center of all things), and the arts were flourishing as a result, especially in Florence, Italy, thanks in part to the patronage of the wealthy Medici family. Artists and scholars returned to classical Greek and Roman texts, now made widely available through translation, studying them as much for their allegorical potential as for their mathematical, scientific, and philosophical uses. Of particular importance to visual artists were the works of Greek mythology, epics, and tragedies, as well as more traditional biblical fables, like the story of David and Goliath.
Donatello, an Italian artist living in Florence, crafted David out of bronze in the 1440s, making it the first freestanding male nude made since antiquity. Some decades later, Michelangelo, perhaps the period’s most famous artist, sculpted his own interpretation of David in marble. Both display the naturalistic contrapposto stance first introduced in Archaic Greece, but Michelangelo’s interpretation is more anatomically correct and exaggeratedly handsome, an idealized male figure rippling with muscle. Though the marble sculpture of ancient Greece was a clear influence on Renaissance style—the Laocoön sculpture would be unearthed in 1506—Michelangelo’s sculpture speaks to his interest in the beauty and musculature of the human figure, mighty not through transference of the holy but through his devotion to it.
Sometimes, Gabriel and I modeled for classes together (it was especially fun, if challenging, to work when we were both hungover). When posing with a friend, there was a whole host of religious imagery to draw on. David and Goliath, of course, but also the pietà: the crucified Jesus lying across the lap of his mother, Mary. Another instantly evocative pose was the Annunciation, the moment in which the angel Gabriel first appears to Mary, depicted in Renaissance paintings throughout Europe.
Like sculpture, whether additive or subtractive, much of figure modeling is about weight and balance. A standing pose, weight relatively centered, can be held perfectly still for longer than one expects, especially if the arms are hanging at one’s sides, positioned on the hips, or better yet, balanced on a prop. A seated pose, too, can be held nearly indefinitely—don’t cross the legs for long, or a foot will go numb; ditto a foot tucked under the seat, which will fill your calf with pins and needles. Bare-bottomed, you’ll want a cushion for anything longer than thirty minutes, and probably sooner if the weight is shifted onto one side. Any standing pose with the knees bent—a lunge, for example—will become taxing for the muscles, unless the foot is supported on a box or pedestal.
Michelangelo’s strong, rippling bodies and crisp, visceral style continued to be influential within the baroque style, which dominated European art into the seventeenth century. Of the baroque sculptors, perhaps the one who best exemplifies the over-the-top style of the era is Bernini, known for his skill with marble—the fingers of his figures, gripping a carved arm or thigh, appear to make dents in the flesh. His sculpture Apollo and Daphne, from 1625, depicts the moment from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which the beautiful nymph, fleeing the sexual advances of the young god, prays to her father for her beauty to be taken away. Daphne’s prayer is granted, with Apollo in hot pursuit, and her hands, outstretched, sprout leaves and turn into branches as she becomes a laurel tree.
Bernini captures this moment of transformation, the pivotal turning point in Daphne’s myth. The two figures appear as if in motion, their bodies following the same arc in space. The dramatic style of the baroque era appears in Apollo’s trailing robes and Daphne’s hair, in the leaves sprouting from her body in extravagant flourishes. The invocation of Greek mythology (by this point a well-trodden subject in visual art) adds heft and substance to the sculpture, providing a scaffolding of story and visual language on which Bernini could show off his craft.
On the model stand, I tried to emulate this idea that the old might be revisited and made new again, used and repurposed to provide material that felt both familiar and refreshed. By drawing on these classical poses and compositions, a lineage of visual language was offered to artists working in the present. It was up to the students in drawing class to make of the material what they wished, but by returning to the gestures and forms of history, that base material could become something fertile and robust.
Sometimes, particularly near the end of the semester, the drawing classes would focus on long poses, held for an hour or sometimes the duration of an entire class. For these extended poses, which demanded absolute stillness—even a change in hand placement or the angle of one’s head could throw off a student drawing from observation—the best options were to stay seated or recline. A pillow or cushion under the elbow helped, as did a blanket or drape of some kind. Other than that, there was little to do except to let the mind go blank. Over the course of an hour or two, sitting on the model stand under the hot lights, my mind would traipse through all kinds of territory, but I remembered none of it once I got up and put on my robe.
Two hundred years after the baroque period, which gave way to the delicate, playful miniatures of the rococo period, the themes of Greek mythology returned in neoclassical sculpture, which was characterized by its smooth, nearly mannerist, cold finish. The sleeping Adonis by Antonio Corradini, on view in the Met’s sculpture court, is an example of the decorative, appealing style; the youth’s reclining posture is also reminiscent of the tradition of depicting odalisques—reclining female nudes, their sensuality on display for the viewer. Cupid and Psyche, an oft-imitated sculpture that also draws from myth, similarly exemplifies the sleek neoclassical finish.
In the late 1880s, Auguste Rodin broke with the neoclassical tradition in his deeply gestural, expressive bronze sculptures cast from clay models he sculpted by hand. Rodin’s figurative sculptures are marked by their heavily worked, craggy surfaces, which allowed for a complex play of light and shadow across their subject. His sculpture fragments, The Walking Man most famous among them, feel like brushstrokes—almost painterly expressions of powerful, sometimes clumsy, earnestly human gestures.
After the twentieth century, the figure model becomes, in some ways, obsolete, or certainly transformed, as in the works of Alberto Giacometti, Constantin Brancusi, or Isamu Noguchi, who all offered ways to further experiment with the limits of human form. No longer did the body need to be represented so completely; like Rodin’s striding man, removed so far now from the ancient Greek kouroi, elements of the figure were reduced to a gesture, a mark, a move. In Brancusi’s Bird in Space series, it wasn’t the bird that was depicted, but the feeling of a bird: sleek, elongated, and gravity-defying.
So much of art is about making things look like other things, drawing on thousands of years of history to find the way something’s already been said. It’s not quite copying, as the Romans did with the statues they adored, but about learning the language so you can use it to say something new. Through the ages, figurative sculptors have returned again and again to history, and to antiquity in particular, each bringing their contemporary interpretations, their anxieties and concerns.
In the Met, there is more than one kouros. There is the kouros boy of the Archaic Greeks, and then there is Noguchi’s Kouros, sculpted in 1945. Both are made of marble, but there the similarities end. Noguchi’s figure isn’t figurative at all: the sculpture’s vertical stance gestures at standing; the right angles of the flattened marble pieces recall limbs and bones. Yet in the precise right angles of Noguchi’s sculpture one recognizes the straight-backed kouros boy, the elegant shoulders, the striving toward perfect form. Perhaps, in the rounded shape atop the sculpture, one even sees a face, abstracted and sublime. Noguchi’s Kouros exists because of the Greek kouros boy, though it is not shaped by it; the sculptor has taken from history freely, using its material to make anew.
Notched and slotted, the pieces of Noguchi’s Kouros are held together without glue or adhesive: the stone, fitting against stone, holds itself upright. Is this not the same question of balance and weight, made more complex, that possessed the earliest sculptors of freestanding figures?
In this text, I’ve traced only one path. It’s a well-trodden one, one that might guide you through the Met or the Louvre. There are many other trajectories through art history, and so many connections to draw between: the deep influence of African sculpture on Western art; the ongoing relationship between religion and cultural production; the gulfs in this history I’ve outlined, where so many women artists are missing. Between any two points in art history one might draw a line, and so much will arise in conversation. But that’s it. That’s what all this has been about all along: a stroll through time. Looking at the way the meanings of things change and how the representation alters the feeling.
Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.