I painted a landscape in the Rosedale Ravine on a brilliant sunny Wednesday in September.
Thursday the light was the same, and I went out to do another the same size, intending them to be hung as a pair.
Following an instinctive bias that puts objects in a series proceeding left to right like words on a page (and probably because of words on a page, I.e.: the habit of reading), I hung the Wednesday picture on the left, and the Thursday picture on the right.
Frankly, I was disappointed. The two paintings exhibiting the same subject, the same size and chromaticism didn’t help each other as I expected they would: each reinforcing the other by reprising pictorial tactics and stratagems. The two pictures were sullen and mute. They seemed resent each other, like equally beautiful sisters at the same party.
I resisted switching them because Wednesday’s came first and so it naturally had to be on the left . . . But when I did switch them, they locked together with an almost audible click as a comprehensible pair. The picture on the left now led the eye to the picture on the right instead of struggling to direct attention away from it. The picture on the right now resolved and restored the deep space thrust of the strong diagonal emanating from the lower left corner of the left picture.
How did that happen?
In a survey of French Impressionist landscape from 1863-1890, perhaps the most beloved paintings in Western art, an intriguing compositional bias is detected. If the painting is divided into four sections (or 16) by two lines: one centred vertically and the other horizontally, the vast majority, over 70% of examples, (taken from the Taschen book) display a similar spatial organizartion. (C.f. Dejeuner sur l’herbe, La Grenouillere, etc.)
The area in the lower left rectangle represents the space closest to the viewer, and the rectangles on the right edge suggest a vertical barrier.
One explanation may be that Western eyes are trained from the habit of reading from left to right to enter the fictive space of a painting from the left side, scan it left to right, reach the edge and re-enter the painting again from the left. Studies have shown that paintings from cultures that read right to left balance the compostion differently, because of their viewer’s propensity to enter a painting from another edge.
There may be another cultural habit at work which makes paintings representing a wall or strong vertical element on the right edge and a clear view of a receding space to the left more popular, and which makes this composition predominant in our most beloved paintings. This response is deeper and more atavistic than the literacy habit and may be dictated by a more primitive section of the brain, the limbic brain, which controls the “fight or flight” response.
The limbic mind does not register the space of a painting as fictional. It sees an actual, unfamiliar terrain that could always contain a potential violent threat. The fictive space of a landscape painting can appear hospitable and safe, or forbidding and dangerous (in other words: esthetically pleasing or not), depending on how much it excites the “fight or flight” response deep in the brain
Of two spatial situations: one with a a barrier or wall on the right and a clear view of the space on the left, and another with a barrier on the left and clear view of approaches from the right, the former will feel more secure to a right handed individual because it is easier to defend with a rock or a stick. The weapon can be swung forehand or hurled at any approaching menace, and an approach from the blind side to the right is blocked by the wall.
Open approaches from the right are more dangerous for the right-handed individual since he would have pivot 180 degrees to the right before a forehand blow could be struck or a rock thrown. For this reason, the fictive space of a painting is viewed as more hospitable, and safer, when there is a barrier on the right and an open approach on the left and less safe when the space is organized the opposite way.
The limbic brain will permit the viewer to relax and enjoy one kind of composition and keep him tense and on edge in the other.
Is it any wonder that the most beloved pictures in the western cannon overwhelmingly depict the more hospitable spatial terrain.