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The Sinister Side, By James Hall

A guide to left and right that's often dextrous and occasionally sinister

Right means good; left means bad. Right means order and rigidity; left means pleasure and anarchy. The right versus left issue is fascinating, irrespective of whether we apply it to art, religion, politics or sport. James Hall's searching new book looks at the ways in which scholars and critics have neglected the importance of left-right symbolism when interpreting Western art. Why should this be so? Because, he argues, we generally map the body from top to bottom and not from left to right or right to left. He regards it as a lost key to understanding Western art.

Hall exhaustively analyses works of art – paintings, prints, sculptures. He scrutinises the orientation of bodies in crucifixion scenes; he notes the way a portrait's gaze twists to left or right. He describes how the early church exalted the idea of the right at the expense of the left – the right was steadfast, virtuous, the left an indication of weakness, moral and physical.

A tremendous change takes place at about the time of the Renaissance. In the courtly love tradition, the left hand comes to be regarded as more beautiful than the right, and the left side of the body as emotionally and morally superior. When St George, in the great 1416 sculpture by Donatello, is seen to thrust his left foot forward, it is a moment of profound cultural significance.

The arguments deployed, and the evidence cited, are dense and teeming. There are many illustrations of single works, but never enough to keep pace with the works described in great detail. This causes the reader a good deal of exasperation – this book should have been much more visual. The greatest single moment of frustration comes when a multiple figure drawing by Michelangelo is referred to as "the greatest drawing ever made". Unfortunately, we are not allowed to admire it for ourselves.

Though perpetually fascinating, there is little sweep or flow to the book; we are always having to put on the brakes to cite secondary sources – until we move towards the present day. The final chapters guide us, much more briskly and entertainingly, through such fascinating subjects as Picasso and Satanism, and how the modern primitives were happy to wallow in the occult mysteries of "gauchisme". This is rather lip-smacking stuff.

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