Thursday, April 2, 2009

James Hall's "The Sinister Side"

James Hall is a freelance art critic and historian. A former art critic for the Guardian, he is the author of two critically acclaimed books: The World as Sculpture and Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art, and reported the following:
We all use pairs of polar opposites to make sense of our world – high and low, good and bad, east and west, and, most recently, boom and bust. Right and left are two of the most important polarities, not least because our own brains are divided into right and left hemispheres, each with their own specialized functions. In almost every culture, the right hand has been regarded as morally as well as physically pre-eminent while the left hand has been denigrated and even demonized. My new book, The Sinister Side: how left-right symbolism shaped western art (OUP), is the first systematic attempt to explore the cultural manifestations of left-right symbolism, with a particular focus on the visual arts.

Page 99 is truly amazing…! It explores one of the most surprising manifestations of left-right symbolism – the archetypal distinction between the right and left eyes. In ancient mythology and in astrology, the right eye was believed to be the domain of the sun, and the left of the moon. This led to a further claim – that the right ‘solar’ eye was the spiritual eye, and the left ‘lunar’ eye was the worldly eye. For Christian writers, the simultaneous illumination of the right eye and the darkening or concealing of the left eye symbolised extreme spirituality; conversely, the darkening of the right eye and illumination of the left eye symbolized extreme worldliness.

Titian’s hitherto misunderstood Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto (Philadelphia Museum of Art), in which the whole of the left side (and eye) of the elderly cardinal is concealed by a curtain, expresses his desire for spiritual rebirth. Similarly, when the damned man in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1536-41) covers the left side of his face with his hand, this implies a tragically belated moment of spiritual awareness. As Michelangelo’s friend and spiritual adviser Vittoria Colonna wrote in one of her poems:

“The left eye closed, the right open,

the wings of hope and of faith

make the loving mind fly high”

The Obama ‘Hope’ painting, by Shepard Fairey, in which the right eye is illuminated, and the left in shadow, draws on this ancient heritage – even if the President is a left-hander!
Learn more about the book at the Oxford University Press website.

Read James Hall's examination of right and left in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon.

--Marshal Zeringue