Art History and the Left/Right Principle.
In case you feel bemused by the above title, let me say that it is a very new approach to looking at works of art. In fact it was only in 2008 that a whole book on the subject of the left and right side of paintings was published by James Hall. In this book, The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art, Hall explored the significance of the left and right within the history of art. As Hall says, though there has been a flood of books about the body in art, hardly any have covered the symbolism of left and right in relation to the painted body. This is nothing less than a great omission in art history because when we look at works of art we have to take into account the place of figures on the surface of the picture; whether they are situated on the right or left-hand side of the picture that our body is confronting. As Hall says, this is discussing left and right in artworks in relation to the “subject’s viewpoint”, which is to be distinguished from the viewpoints of the figures in the actual painting whose position is obviously reversed to ours, or more accurately, our position is reversed in relation to theirs . According to Hall, this goes against the historical belief that the protagonists in the picture, usually saints, gods etc are more important than the people looking at them. For an initial example, let’s consider Grunewald’s harrowing Isenheim Altarpiece whose exterior shows a crucifixion scene. Traditionally, in crucifixion scenes, the bad thief and good thief were on Christ’s left and right hand sides respectively, but no clear distinctions between left and right exist here. Instead we might be tempted to focus exclusively on Christ, but there is the evidence of written documents which state that some viewers looked to Christ’s right to see his devout mother at the foot of the cross. However, it would be wrong of such pious spectators to say Mary is on the left because the left was associated with evil things.
A Theory of Left- Right Reading in Poussin’s Flight into Egypt.
In the words of Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf, we find ‘reading’ across seventeenth-century paintings from left to right natural because our eye is accustomed to the Western tradition of writing and reading a story from left to right. For her, looking, and hence reading, generally begins on the left of the picture until it is checked by the main action of the story whose moral import then runs in a counter direction from right to left. The example she gives to illustrate her point, Annibale Carracci’s Landscape with Diana and Callisto (Mertoun, Collection of Duke of Sutherland, 1598-9), is interesting because it shows the goddess pointing imperiously from right to left, a gesture that suggests her authority because it results in Callisto left of centre being disrobed by Diana’s nymphs. In Annibale’s painting, clearly based on Titian’s more famous version, a single imposing figure subdues other figures in the composition: Diana lifts her hand, points toward Callisto, and the woman falls to the ground. Nicolas Poussin and Pietro Testa’s versions of the Massacre of the innocents deal with the representation of tragic violence in different ways, but discernible in both is a pictorial structure dependent upon reading from left to right. The viewer is encouraged to follow a path across the picture that leads the eye from the bottom left foreground to the right-hand background, a journey for the eye that on the thematic level leads from violence to safety. Both paintings show the action taking place on an elevated stage: both invite the eye to enter at lower left; both have the promise of salvation at the right; and both have figures in flight from peril from an interior to the outside world. That last example cautions against assigning a general theory of reading from left to right in Poussin’s art, but whatever the situation globally, in the specific subjects of the massacre and a related subject, Christ’s flight into Egypt, the directional force nearly always runs from left to right. This seems be the rule rather than the exception, a view supported by an examination of versions of the flight during this period: in the seventeenth-century there is nearly always a left-right movement through pictorial space rather than movement in a contrary direction.
Interpretation at the Cross-roads.
The strongman of the ancient world, Hercules, stands at a junction. On his right (our left) is a stern female representing virtue; on his left is a woman lounging on the ground symbolising pleasure. This kind of image is known as the “Choice of Hercules,” a crisis point in the hero’s life which has to be resolved by choosing a direction, usually moral. The history of modern interpretation of this painting begins with Panofsky whose essay on the Choice of Hercules could be seen as the ur-text of interpretation. For Panofsky, a small panel by Raphael was a variant on the Choice of Hercules, in which philosophical exegesis and notions of pleasure were united to illustrate a moral theme. Building on Panofsky’s foundation, Edgar Wind claimed that the missing text of iconography was the Roman archaeologist Macrobius’s Dream of Scipio in which the hero was warned against the voluptuous life in a disquisition on philosophy. Wind argued that the London panel represented the discipline of the hero who would choose the path of duty, the picture therefore standing for the virtuous nature of the hero. A companion piece, The Three Graces, (Chantilly, Musée Condé), was thought by Wind to represent liberality, a pictorial counterweight to Scipio’s heroic dream. However, as Hall has pointed out, this may not be such a stark choice between the left of evil, or the good of right; the subject protested against a “moral absolutism.” A moral divide in life is not created in the Choice of Scipio, but an aesthetic one. This reading challenges those that see the two female visitations as polar opposites with the woman holding the book and sword allegorising moral duty, and the woman with the flower, unbridled pleasure. As Joseph Koerner observes, Virtue may look slightly more austere than Pleasure, but she is hardly the ugly, authoritative type found in the German engraving that Panofsky used in his iconographic method. More significantly, the figure of Pleasure is not entirely given over to voluptuousness as she was in the preliminary drawing for the painting. This finessing of the allegory is visible in the changes between the cartoon and the final painting. In the cartoon Raphael made Virtue’s neckline more angular; he also modified the décolletage of Pleasure and gave her a more modest tunic. This suggests that Raphael was using beauty as a unifying force rather than something structuring an opposition between right and left- virtue and vice.
You’ll be shown a portrait of Cardinal Achinto by Titian (usually dated to 1558), in which a curtain obscures the Cardinal’s left-hand side. Discuss the significance of the curtain. You might ask each other the following questions. Is it significant that the curtain covers the left-hand side (the viewer’s right) of the figure? Does it affect the interpretation of the portrait? What role does left-handedness play in this portrait? Is this an example of what James Hall calls “pictorial concealment of the left-hand side of the body”?
Images on Skydrive gallery here.