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BEVIS HILLIER

A Pose Is a Pose Is a Pose : The Crossed-Leg Stance Has Been a Popular Theme in Art for Centuries

October 20, 1985|BEVIS HILLIER

One of the most irritating cliches of journalism today is this: "What do X, Y and Z (three well-known people) have in common?" The answer is usually something like: "They all spread peanut butter on their watermelons," or "All three have their hair styled by Madame Snippette of Beverly Hills." The irreverent syllables "So what?" spring to mind.

But I will ask: What do the three ceramic figures in the illustration have in common? Answer: All three have a nonchalant, crossed-leg pose that recurs in art, especially in sculpture, across the centuries.

If you learned that somebody was writing a book--or an article--on "Crossed Legs in Art From Classical Greece to the Present," you might dismiss the author as one of those pedantic art historians who have no sense of beauty but can squabble endlessly over dates, provenance and who cribbed what from whom.

Yet there is a justification for studying a single theme, such as the crossed-legs pose, in art. It is fascinating to see how widely different artists tackle the same subject. Only through such "odious comparisons," ultimately, can we assess quality in art.

For all I know, there may have been a cave painting of the relaxed, crossed-leg pose. The canonical model for the stance seems to be a classical statue of Mercury in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. A boy with a goose, of the 3rd Century BC, in the Athens Museum has nearly the same stance, except that he is resting on the other foot.

The most glorious use of the pose was in the "Portrait of a Young Man Leaning Against a Tree," by the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, an artist of whom Shakespeare wrote warmly. It was painted about 1588, the year that the Spanish Armada was beaten back from the English coast by traditional English holiday weather. In a book of 1964, "Mr. W. H." (Alfred A. Knopf, New York), the American scholar Leslie Hotson suggested that the Hilliard miniature represented William Hatcliffe, a London law student, who he claimed was the "Mr. W. H." to whom Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated. Most scholars today, however, would agree with Dr. A. L. Rowse that "Mr. W. H." was in fact Sir William Harvey, stepfather of the Earl of Southampton, the young man to whom many of the sonnets (Rowse believes) are addressed.

Peter Paul Rubens gave a very voluptuous female figure of Earth the crossed-leg look in his "The Union of Earth and Water" (circa 1618). In the 19th Century, the pose was frequently used for gilt figures on cut-glass inkwells.

Neoclassicism came in again in the 1930s, when the pose was much favored by German sculptors and by Prof. Josef Wackerle of the Nymphenburg porcelain factory, Bavaria, who was Hitler's favorite ceramic modeler.

In 1967, the sleeve of the Liberty (USA) / EMI Italiana record of the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice" depicted 007, dapper in his gentleman's suit, in the languid attitude--but holding a pistol and a diving mask, against a background of girl bathers.

To me, the most revealing comparison is the one in our illustration. It shows a pair of European bisque figures that can only be described as camp . They belong to the fin de siecle decadence of European art that the Cubists understandably wanted to do away with.

The smaller figure of a sailor lad is an altogether more robust model, standing more firmly on his crossed legs. He was made in England around the 1860s. He is more crudely modeled than the Continental pair; so here one has the paradox of a less sophisticated technique but a more satisfying aesthetic result. Unfortunately, however, the taste of the collecting public is not always attuned to artistic merit, so the rather showy Continental pair would sell for about $800, the sailor boy for about $150.

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