ISBN: 0199230862
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Copy


Things have been turning somewhat sinister on this blog recently – what with turnings of the screw and flutterings of the raven.  Ideal time then to focus James Hall’s analysis of the sinister side in art – sinister, as in Latin for left.

The Sinister Side – subtitled “How left-handed symbolism shaped Western Art” – explores the choices the artists make when painting their masterpieces.  Should the subject present their left or their right side? What difference does it make to the meaning of the picture? It something I’d never considered before and Hall is turning it into a fascinating discussion. 
Fuseli The Nightmare (Right) 

What, for instance, are the differences in interpretation in Fuseli’s two paintings of the nightmare?

I love my allegories in literature – understanding the allegories in art is just as engrossing. Why, for instance, has Cardinal Archtinto’s left-side been occluded by a veil in Titian’s painting shown on the dust jacket and how does this point to his spiritual rebirth?

We lefthanders (and there you have my declaration of interest) have been served a raw deal throughout the ages.  The connection between the left hand and evil runs back centuries, the image not aided by the modern associations of the original Latin word, sinister.  It wasn’t all that long ago that teachers tied pupils’ left hands behind their backs.  After all

Righthandedness is the price to pay for a more perfect and accomplished civilization; this is why left-handedness seems to be an archaicism, a return to the primitive state. (Anonymous, “Left-handedness”, Medical Record, New York 1886.)

And for more prejudice, have a look at all the slang – mostly derogatory – that has been created to malign the k-podders (term used by my Lancastrian mother, the etymology of which I cannot track down).

So, it was a relief, to find that not all left-hand associations are negative.  Indeed in the fifteenth century, the left-hand was regarded as the beautiful hand, the hand of truth, of honour, of love .. which is why 8 of the 9 characters are presenting their left sides in Botticelli’s beautiful Primavera.

Botticelli - Primavera
Botticelli - Primavera

I’m about half-way through Hall’s magnum opus.  Taking it slowly, browsing.  Looking forward immensely to the second-half in which I will meet up with my favourite German painter, Caspar David Friedrich and discover how Picasso used left-handed symbolism in his cubist works.  Though how anyone can find anything left or right-handed in this is an absolute mystery to me at this moment.

Ma Jolie
Picasso - Ma Jolie