Observe this picture for a few seconds. Then read on.
When I first saw Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Resistance on the banks of the Rhine’, at an exhibition in 1995, I found it very unsettling without being able to tell why. It can’t have been the body of the dead partisan, as the same exhibition contained far more graphic and heart-rending pictures from the darkest days in European history. At the end of our visit we purchased the catalogue and I figured it out some time later. It was the composition, which in turn may have had something to do with the way we read pictures.
I can’t remember if John Boardman mentions this, but I’ve heard Marian Maguire explain it in her talks: in ancient Greek black- and red-figure pottery, the figures on the left of the picture almost always hold the power. If the scene depicts a battle, it is understood that they will prevail even though the outcome may appear uncertain at the moment in which the action is captured.
|Achilles Slays Penthesilea|
Now I know that there is a theory, although I don’t know how well supported it is, and I’m wary of the certainties of psychologists and cognitive scientists. It says that literate peoples produce and read pictures the same way they read their script. So, in the case of ancient Greeks (and ours), from left to right. This is the direction in which pictures flow: energy (therefore power and ascendancy, in the Greek example), movement and time all proceed from left to right. The Bayeux Tapestry and Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel were expected to be read in that way, even by non-literate spectators. More interestingly perhaps, the Renaissance genre of continuous narrative represented temporal movement within a single pictorial frame, also from left to right, as in this painting by Jacopino di Francesco which bundles the Nativity with the Adoration of the Magi, and Mary and her baby appear twice.
|(I received help on Twitter to find these examples: credit for this one goes to @cathyby)|
Or Masaccio’s The Tribute Money, in which Saint Peter appears three times.
|(h/t @bonniej1, @gj_robins)|
I think the reason why I find it so unsettling is that my eyes cannot come to a resting place. The ingrained left-to-right pull, reinforced by the lines traced by the bridge, forces me to look to the right. But in the bottom-left there is a body, and I want to look at that too for I am a human being and humanity is what I look for in most pictures. However, once I’ve looked at the body I can’t just stop there. The other reflex kicks back in, pushing me towards the right edge of the photograph again, and so on. However, if I flip the image
I don’t get that effect at all. Now the human subject is where my eyes come to a rest. The photograph has become more mournful than tragic, more melancholic than unsettling.
The theory also says that there are cultures that read and organise pictures in different ways. According to psychologist Lera Boroditsky, when experimental subjects are asked to arrange a shuffled bundle of photographs of a certain event into the correct temporal sequence
English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left). […] In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.
I don’t know what this tells us – again, I am suspicious of the certainties of people who study the mind across different cultures – but I may have stumbled into my own supporting example, about 15 years after seeing the photograph by Cartier-Bresson. It comes from the Japanese manga Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms by Fumiyo Kōno, which is set in Hiroshima ten years after the bombing. In one scene, two lovers kiss on a bridge, but they are haunted by the memory of the bodies that once floated in the water below.
It’s a picture that had the identical unsettling effect on me as Cartier-Bresson's: again my eyes cannot come to a resting place, and keep going from the two lovers to the top right corner across the bridge and back again. However, this time I wonder if a native Japanese reader would effectively be looking at a mirror image. This would still be horrific, but devoid of the visual tension and the sense of being pulled concurrently into two directions - a not insignificant difference, in terms of the psychological effect and ultimately the meaning of the artwork.
I wonder, then, if along with a history of seeing we could talk of an art of looking: that is to say, a set of acquired techniques for making sense of the coded images of the culture in which we happen grow up. And, if so, whether we should think more deeply about intersemiotics and visual translation, even if it means nothing more than cultivating a measure of doubt in the universal appeal of images, and in our own capacity to make sense of them all.