A look at the dictionary’s definition of the word “balance” reveals a multitude of meanings—physical, formal, aesthetic, psychological (and many more, such as in accounting!). It is, fundamentally, an ideal notion, and its visual translation is both a challenge and a tool that conveys multifarious meanings and values.
In Georges Seurat’s depiction of a circus, a woman is graciously standing on one foot on a white horse that gallops all feet off the ground, its mane and tail flying—just like the performer’s ponytail. The ballerina’s balancing feat finds its counterpart in the acrobat right behind her, who, similarly dressed in orange, is aloft head down. One is left wondering whether the man jumped from the horse or is executing a somersault in the ring.
Seurat’s acrobat brings to mind a much older work, the so-called Bull Leaping fresco from Knossos. In this Minoan mural (heavily reconstructed), we see three figures interacting with a charging bull: one grabs the bull’s horns, another, whose position recalls Seurat’s acrobat, is head down, twirling over the animal’s back, while a third one lands on the ground. The meaning of this scene remains mysterious: probably a ritual, perhaps a rite of passage. The depiction captures a split second of a highly dynamic action, but also can be read as the development over time of three successive moments of a single person leaping over the animal. The composition is contained, perfectly inscribed within the frame. The figures on each side are women: according to Minoan conventions, their skin is lighter than that of the central figure. The women face inwards and act as bookends, while the man is positioned in the exact middle of the fresco. As my dear colleague David Simon always said when lecturing on Minoan art, the representation of this strenuous event perfectly corresponds to Minoan culture and art as it combines spontaneity and control.
A commingling of balance and dynamism is also at the heart of Alexander Calder’s “mobiles.” In these kinetic sculptures, elements of different dimensions hang in varied configurations creating a harmonious equilibrium, while they gently move, propelled by the flow of air.
The name “mobile” was given by Calder’s friend Marcel Duchamp in 1931. A year prior, Calder had embraced abstraction after a visit to Piet Mondrian’s Parisian studio. Remembering this encounter, Calder wrote: “This visit gave me a shock that started things.” When he saw colored rectangles tacked on a canvas, Calder suggested that “perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate,” but Mondrian, “with a very serious countenance, said: ‘No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast.’” Mondrian’s kinetic perception is understandable when one thinks that his goal was to achieve, as he put it, a “dynamic equilibrium.” Like his fellow members of De Stijl (“The Style,” founded in 1917 in Amsterdam), his aim was at once radical and utopian as he believed that perfection and universal harmony could be achieved through geometric abstraction. There is a deeply spiritual element in De Stijl. For Mondrian, who was greatly impacted by A New Image of the World, a book by the Dutch mathematician (and theosophist) M.H.J. Schoenmaekers, the artist’s role was to understand and reveal the underlying mathematical structure of the universe.
As Mondrian moved away from figuration and eventually reached complete geometric abstraction, he developed what he called Neo-Plasticism. There is no foreground, no background, no illusionism whatsoever (I like to remind my students that modernism is essentially about reduction). It is a purely abstract work: nothing other than pigment applied on a canvas. The composition is asymmetrical and yet perfectly harmonious. Mondrian narrows down his elements to the most basic forms and colors: vertical and horizontal black lines on a white background, while some of the resulting squares and rectangles are filled by the three primary colors, whose unequal sizes balance each other and impart dynamism to the composition. The canvas is square—the most static of all shapes, one that artists find hard to handle because it requires extra skill to animate it.
Balance and Perfection
As Mondrian shows us, balance doesn’t exist in a pure state of stasis—hence his term of “dynamic equilibrium”—and can be achieved through asymmetry. This is further illustrated by the stance that the Ancient Greeks called the “chiastic pose” and the Italians contrapposto (“counterpoise”). Polykleitos’s famous Spear Bearer stands at ease, his weight on his right leg, his left relaxed. The term “chiastic” is derived from the Greek letter χ (chi) and refers to the opposed placement of engaged and relaxed limbs: to the engaged right leg corresponds the left arm that holds the spear, while the left leg and right arm are at rest. The pose expresses simultaneously stasis and a potential for motion; the man is relaxed and yet ready to move at any moment.
The sculpture shows the body as a holistic system, its parts responding to each other (see for instance how the axis of the pelvis shifts because of the weight placed on one leg). In Ancient Greece, this work was known as the Κανών (“canon,” meaning “rule” or “measure”) and this ideal system of proportions was rooted in a philosophical quest, in the belief that beauty and perfection could be expressed in mathematical terms and that it possessed a moral dimension: the contemplation of harmonious proportions was equated with the contemplation of virtue.
Similar ideals guided Filippo Brunelleschi’s design of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, a foundling hospital in Florence. On the façade’s ground floor, we have a loggia with round arches supported by composite columns (with Corinthian pilasters at the extremities), on the second story, small pedimented windows are placed immediately above each of the arches. The arches’ spandrels hold roundels by Andrea della Robbia, with glazed terracotta reliefs of swaddled “bambini.” Brunelleschi used a gray sandstone that Florentine architects loved, called pietra serena (“serene stone”) to highlight and separate each of the components. The Ospedale’s façade is about balance and perfection—mathematical perfection. In the loggia, for instance, the height of each column equals the width of the bay and its depth from column to wall, thus containing a perfect cube.
For the Florentine artists of the High Renaissance balance and harmony was more than ever a paramount concern and pure geometric shapes offered, as for Brunelleschi a few generations earlier and for the Ancient Greeks, an effective tool (we are reminded of the inscription believed to grace the façade of Plato’s Academy in Athens: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here”). For Leonardo da Vinci, solving difficult problems was a prime impetus in his work. With this painting conceived in 1501 while Leonardo was in Florence, but completed much later in Milan, Leonardo successfully tackles symmetry and harmony while dealing with a particularly challenging subject matter, as he manages to combine into a harmonious composition three people and a lamb. He confers grace and ease to the rather awkward placement of the two adults: the Virgin Mary sits on the lap of her mother, Ann. The Virgin leans towards the baby Jesus who in turn holds a lamb (a symbol of his forthcoming sacrifice). Not only does Leonardo manage to unite the figures through an interplay of gestures and glances, but he invents a new manner of organizing figures by arranging them into a pyramidal composition, the most stable of configurations. He further unifies the group and blends it into the environment through the use of sfumato (from the Italian word for smoke), drowning the edges into a vaporous atmosphere.
The pyramidal composition is the embodiment of High Renaissance ideals of harmony, balance, and stability and is central to Michelangelo’s Pietà. In this commission for a French cardinal, the pathetic theme, unlike earlier Germanic renditions of the Vesperbild, is treated in a serene manner and conveys a message of hope and love. Michelangelo transforms the harsh expressionism of Northern art into a restrained and idealized depiction: the dead Christ lays peacefully and his wounds are hardly noticeable, while the Virgin, represented much younger, looks down on him lovingly. Even though Mary holds the lifeless body of her adult son on her lap, she does so effortlessly. The pyramidal composition confers stability to the group while the massive drapery of Mary’s dress visually provides support for Jesus (the fabric also contrasts with his naked body).
About a decade later, Michelangelo tackled the daunting task of painting the vault of the Sistine chapel (and later, also the wall over the altar). In his rendition of the Original Sin and its aftermath, the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, he used symmetry to pair the two scenes, with the Tree of Knowledge in the center, acting as a fulcrum. The two moments are compositionally linked by an ample arch that spreads at the top and through the panel’s width. The gesture of the Serpent is echoed by that of the angel who expels the first couple (while Adam extends an arm in parallel fashion). By combining these two moments, Michelangelo shows the consequences of succumbing to temptation as we see the couple—their faces marred with pain—leave the lush Garden of Eden to enter a barren landscape.
Almost contemporary with Michelangelo’s fresco is Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of the same momentous biblical episode. Adam and Eve stand in a classical contrapposto and recall famous ancient sculptures (the Medici Venus for her and the Belvedere Apollo for him). As nudity was justified by the scene, Dürer seizes the opportunity to depict two perfect bodies that illustrate his studies on proportion. Furthermore, their physiognomy is complementary: both display trapezoidal torsos that mirror each other. The first couple is not alone in Eden: a whole slew of animals surrounds them. As Erwin Panofsky showed many years ago, several of these animals allude to what was known as the four temperaments, a theory first articulated by the Ancient physician Galen. In the so-called humoral theory, different bodily fluids (humors) determine four different temperaments: the sanguine by an excess of blood, the choleric by bile secreted by the liver, the melancholic by “black gall,” a fluid also secreted by the liver, and the phlegmatic by phlegm from the lungs. In Dürer’s print, as Panofsky famously declared, a rabbit represents “sanguine sensuality,” a cat “choleric cruelty,” an elk “melancholic gloom,” and an ox “phlegmatic sluggishness.” Each of these animals was connected to a season, age, and an element: the sanguine with spring, childhood, and air; the choleric with summer, youth, and fire; the melancholic with autumn, middle age, and earth; and the phlegmatic with winter, old age, and water. It is thus an an-encompassing system, in fact, not so different from the principles of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
Before the Fall, the four temperaments were in balance and that equilibrium was broken when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Original Sin, by disturbing this balance, brought illness and death. Two details support this message. The first, in the foreground, is the position of the mouse and cat, with the cat ready to pounce on the rodent, expounding the idea that this balance is just about to end—we could say that all hell is about to break loose! Another humorous detail appears in the distance. Precariously perched on a cliff, a mountain goat looks down, as if it were about to jump, a visual translation of the name of the episode—the Fall.
Adam and Eve were not the only ones to fall from grace: this was also what happened to Lucifer and the so-called Rebel Angels, who would go on to staff hell. The Limbourg Brothers depict their fall in an illumination that appears in one of the most magnificent illuminated manuscripts ever created, fittingly called the Très Riches Heures (“very rich hours”) of the Duke of Berry. It is a prayer book of the type referred to as a book of hours, alluding to the fact it contains prayers to be said at different times of the day, the canonical hours. This particular illumination appears at the beginning of the Penitential Psalms—a clear warning to not rebel against God out of pride as did Lucifer and other angels. God appears at the very top, in the center, flanked by three rows of ornate Gothic choir stalls where angels sit. A considerable number of seats has been emptied by the rebel angels expelled from Heaven. Directly below God stands a group of angels, dressed in military garb, who brandish swords and a spear. More angelic soldiers cast down their fallen colleagues, who plunge headfirst into a fiery hell from which smoke rises. At the bottom center is Lucifer, the leader of the rebel angels, who still wears a crown.
Despite the fall from their heavenly abode and their loss of balance, the rebel angels tumble in perfect symmetry, forming two tidy strings that converge on the towering figure of Lucifer. Similarly, the stalls are emptied in a regular and symmetrical pattern. Flanking Lucifer, on the viewer’s left—that is, the right from God’s perspective—is an angel who forcefully pushes down one of the rebel angels, who has been completely engulfed by fiery magma. On the opposite side is a rebel angel who dives head first, his hands clutched in a worthless prayer. No doubt is left: the balanced composition confirms that the demise of these figures is the work of God.
In art, the notion of balance is thus both form and metaphor, visually translating aesthetic ideals, moral values, philosophical principles, medical theory, and religious doctrine. What might seem like a paradox (think of Mondrian’s “dynamic equilibrium”), is the stuff of life: balance is a process. Indeed, achieving and maintaining balance is a balancing act that involves different processes, such as circulation, exchange, regulation, and negotiation. There can’t be balance without imbalance, grace without the risk of losing it, perfection without imperfection, harmony without discord. It is because there is instability, imbalance, disorder, disharmony, strife, imperfection, anguish, vice, chaos, pain, disease, and death, that we strive for balance.
Calder Foundation, “1930–1936 Shift to Abstraction.”
Dürer, Albrecht. Underweysung der Messung (Manual of Measurement), Nuremberg: Hieronymus Andreae 1525.
Dürer, Albrecht. Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion (Four Books of Human Proportion), Nuremberg: Hieronymus Formschneider (Hieronymus Andreae), 1528.
Panofsky, Erwin, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945.
Schoenmaekers, Mathieu Hubertus Josephus, Het Nieuwe wereldbeeld (The New Image of the World), Bussum: C. A. J. Van Dishoeck, 1915.
Image at top: Georges Seurat, Le Cirque, oil on canvas, 72.8 x 59.8 in. (185 x 152 cm), 1890–91, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (photo: Wikimedia Commons).