On Style

Contrapposto and surfing.

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You can’t define surf style—right? 

One surfer’s idea of equipoise is another’s vision of rank, look-at-me-being-casual peacocking. But maybe our cultural references are as shallow as our knowledge of aesthetics. 

As in life, there’s little downside in studying the classics—and we’re not talking Phil and Gerry. No, let’s go way, way back. Before the first artless Instagram roundups of old surf mag photos, even. 480 B.C., to put a fine point on it. That’s when Greek sculptor Kritios asked his young model to put all his weight on his rear leg, thereby tilting his pelvis, curving his spine, and animating the composition. No longer would artistic representations look like stiff, wooden cutouts. In one fell swoop, the marble sprang to life: emotion, attitude, psychology—the lot of it. Art was forever changed.

The concept, called contrapposto by the Italians, found its dynamic zenith in Michelangelo’s David. Picture the subject, front leg out, foot up on its toes, gravity’s force running from his head through the rigid leg, torso correspondingly articulating. The outsize hands draw attention to the giant-killer’s Positive Ape Index (wingspan broader than he is tall). Go ahead, put a pintail under his feet and stick him in the maw at Backdoor. Tell yourself it’s not baldly self-evident. Tell yourself surf style is undefinable. 

Contrapposto examples abound, from pop culture to high fashion. Sergio Leone used it when he posed Clint Eastwood for the serape shot in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Leggy-ass Gisele Bündchen employed it every time she shucked a hip. Every stone-cold matador in Iberian history has posted up contrapposto. It is the body in motion at its purest, and it holds a visceral address to our spirit. 

Some will still maintain that physical line is ineffable, that form is always beholden to function. That surf style is just a mawkish collection of arches, jive, and squats. But our pursuit has never been pure function, pure sport. If one is trying to deadlift unyielding iron in some fetid gym, damn straight, form follows function. Surfing, as we know, is something else. 

Shaun Tomson, Off The Wall, 1977.

Feature image by Dan Merkel/A-Frame.