Paul Johnson

From Renaissance Florence to Hollywood in only one contrapposto step

What John Wayne and the great statues of David have in common.

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The other day I came across a clever book on the movie actor John Wayne. I forget the name of the author but it may have been Simon Louvish, who writes better than anyone else on the film-star world. This suggested that the secret of Wayne’s immense physical appeal was his instinctive contrapposto. When filmed standing he never held himself stiffly to attention, as Laurence Olivier and Clark Gable tended to do, but shifted his weight casually on to one leg. This is the posture adopted by both Donatello and Michelangelo in their splendid, and splendidly different, renderings of ‘David’.

The concept of contrapposto is subtle as well as important, and goes right to the heart of aesthetics. If you want to go into it seriously, you must read the work of David Summers, especially his incisive article ‘Contrapposto: Style and Meaning in Renaissance Art’, in the Art Bulletin (1977). As Summers says, the word is not simply the past participle of the Italian word to counterpose. It is also found in Latin, contrapositum, itself derived from the Greek antithesis. The notion is fundamentally verbal, emerging from the art of rhetoric. Aristotle, in his treatise on rhetoric, says that the knack is to put together words which signify the opposite to one another, in such a way as to please, delight and inspire thought. Contrast is essentially stimulating. A classic instance is in Petrarch’s Canzioniere (ccxv): ‘E non so che nelli occhi... Po far chiara la notte, oscuro il giorno’, which might be translated ‘There is something in her eyes which illuminates night and darkens day’. Contrapposto is not the only way in which an artist can employ the antithetical principle. There is the use of sfumato, in contradistinction to the strictly linear and sharply defined, invented by Leonardo da Vinci, and the kind of chiaroscuro first employed on a princely scale by Caravaggio. But the anti-posturing of sculpture is the purest and simplest, and often the most effective way of pleasing. If you get too complex and theoretical, you do the idea to death. Thus Leon Battista Alberti, that monumental old bore, says that pictorial composition should not only contain high and low figures, some coming towards you, others retreating, but also nudes and dressed persons, men and women, children, youths and the aged, and even rich and poor. What sort of picture could that be about, then? When reading Alberti I sometimes think that he could never have lived in the real world, or looked closely at it anyway, like that dreadful French painter, Nicolas Poussin.

Military drill is, by its very nature, the antithesis of contrapposto. But not always. Thus, the Brigade of Guards drill, standard in the British army, and always taught at my school by RSM O’Brien, late of the 1st battalion, Irish Guards, is based upon the Attention Posture — posto epitome, ‘like a post’. The ‘stand at ease’ is also rigid, with legs and arms straight, even though legs are astride and arms joined behind the back. Not until you get the command ‘Stand easy’ is it possible to assume contrapposto. However, not all do guards drill. My old regiment, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, also known as the 60th Rifles, and founder-regiment of the Green Jackets, was raised in 1760 to fight in the forests of North America, whence its dark green and black uniforms. It had a relaxed, self-administering drill which is essentially contrapposto. Now I am not suggesting that my CO, Colonel Mitford-Slade, thought in these terms. But my company commander, Major Martin Charteris, later the Queen’s Secretary and Provost of Eton, certainly did. Indeed I think I even heard him use the word when discussing the magnificent aesthetics of light infantry drill. You might say there was an underlying spirit of contrapposto in the regiment when I was in it in the late 1940s. It pleased itself in leaning comfortably against the grain of the army. The service as a whole was in a parlous state, as was inevitable under peacetime conscription, for all the best NCOs, and most of the professional officers, had to spend all their time training in basics an endless succession of intakes of National Servicemen, most of whom hated it. Except to a limited extent in the Army of the Rhine, there was no proper training, even at brigade level, let alone divisional or above. And in every officers’ mess there were many dugouts, usually majors, who had been commissioned as amateurs in the war and had contrived to cling on — useless, as a rule. But the 60th took all this in its stride. ‘None of it will matter when we come to fight the Bear’ was the line.

Part of the contrapposto was a tolerance of homosexuality, most unusual, even amazing, for its time (c.1949–50). Not that the 60th was a Queers’ Regiment, as some of the cavalry were. But a certain amount of alignment went on, and it was said that the Corps of Buglers was ‘a nest’. (But then this is often said of buglers.) I never personally observed anything unusual and, having been at Magdalen (not the college of Oscar Wilde for nothing) for three years, I knew exactly what to look for. I was instantly appointed in charge of the barrack room when I enlisted at Bushfield Camp, just outside Winchester, where the 60th had its HQ and depot. This involved keeping in order the various Wykehamists, Old Harrovians, Etonians and Westminster boys who had just arrived straight from school. I noticed nothing unusual and would have been extremely severe in stopping it if I had. The man in the bed next to mine was Nicholas Eden, son of Anthony Eden, a good-natured and able Old Etonian, who never gave any trouble, and was later a conscientious MP and junior minister. I would never have classified him as ‘queer’, and in due course I was astonished to learn that he had died of Aids, the first prominent Englishman to do so. Perhaps he had spent some time in the bathhouse culture of southern California, in that terribly promiscuous period between the lifting of legal restrictions on sodomy and the emergence of the plague. Of course his wonderfully handsome, gifted and tragically accident-prone father had a strongly feminine side to him. One who had sat in Cabinet with him (I forget who it was: probably old ‘Derry’ Amory) once said to me, ‘Anthony is a great man, no doubt of it. And a good man, too — in general. But there are times when he is nothing more, or less, than an hysterical woman.’ That propensity led him to the almighty balls-up of Suez, 1956; and his son to the Aids tomb.

I have just been in my London garden to look at the contrapposto pose of my early 19th-century replica of Donatello’s ‘David’. It was made in Florence, of crushed marble, and is immensely heavy. Indeed it is probably more ponderous than the original bronze which, of course, was hollow, and it took five strong men to manoeuvre it into position beside my fig tree. This wonderful piece of work, now in the Bargello, was set up on an ornamental pedestal in the courtyard of the new palace Cosimo de’ Medici built. In a monograph in Art History (1974), the Renaissance scholar Ames-Lewis has suggested that the work is a neo-Platonic interpretation of David as an allegory of heavenly love. It is certainly, in its self-conscious display of nudity and elegance, highly sensuous, not to say sexy, and both feminine as well as masculine. The headgear seems to me to be a young girl’s straw hat. My replica emphasises these points and the self-amorous contrapposto is extreme. All a long way from tough guy John Wayne.