The Sinister Side: How Left-right Symbolism Shaped Western Art

Author(s): James Hall

Fine Art

Why does the Mona Lisa have an uneven smile? Was Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon an exploration of Satanism? Why did Michelangelo depict so many left-handed archers? Why did the British Queen look so different when Annie Liebowitz lit her from her left side in a recent official portrait? The answer to all these questions lies in a hidden symbolic language in the visual arts: that of the perceived differences between the left and right sides of the body. It is a symbolism that has been interpreted by artists through the centuries, and that can be uncovered in many of our greatest masterpieces, but that has been long forgotten about or misunderstood by those concerned with the history of art and the human body. The Sinister Side reveals the key, and sheds new light on some of the greatest art from before the Renaissance to the present day. Traditionally, in almost every culture and religion, the left side has been regarded as inferior - evil, weak, worldly, feminine - while the right is good, strong, spiritual and male. But starting in the Renaissance, this hierarchy was questioned and visualised as never before.
The left side, in part because of the presence of the heart, became the side that represented authentic human feelings, especially love. By the late nineteenth century, with the rise of interest in the occult and in spiritualism, the left side had become associated with the taboo and with the unconscious. Exploring how works of art reflect our changing cultural ideas about the natural world, human nature, and the mind, James Halls'Sinister Side is the first book to detail the richness and subtlety of left-right symbolism in art, and to show how it was a catalyst for some of the greatest works of visual art from Botticelli and Van Eyck to Vermeer and Dali.


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an engrossing study, deeply and imaginatively researched... [the book] oozes credibility. Keith Miller, Times Literary Supplement A grippingly enjoyable, profoundly insightful, excitingly provocative book Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, The Art Newspaper ...brilliant book... Andrew Marr, Start the Week The right versus left issue is fascinating...[a] searching new book. Michael Glover, The Independent This pioneering and entertaining book does much more than succeed in its modest aim of prompting 'further reflection and research.' John McEwan, The Tablet Hall is refreshingly broad in his approach. John McEwan, The Tablet This is a clever book that has the great merit of persuading us to look more closely at familiar paintings. Paul Johnson, Literary Review An excellent entry point for a close look at a painting, especially one we take for granted, and there is no denying that James Hall has written a stimulating and valuable book. Paul Johnson, Literary Review

James Hall is a freelance art critic and historian. A former art critic of The Guardian (for which he was awarded the first Bernard Benvir prize for art criticism), he is the author of many essays and of two critically acclaimed books: The World as Sculpture: the changing status of sculpture from the Renaissance to the present day (1999); Michelangelo and the reinvention of the human body (2005). His most recent publication is an imaginary dialogue with Michelangelo, Coffee with Michelangelo (2006).


General Fields

  • : 9780199230860
  • : Oxford University Press
  • : Oxford University Press
  • : October 2008
  • : 242mm X 162mm X 29mm
  • : United Kingdom
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Hardback
  • : 704.946
  • : 512
  • : 30 B&W halftones
  • : James Hall