At Penn, a kiss these days too often means a sloppy DFMO in the basement of a frat house. It’s no wonder that so many people complain about finding love at Penn. But, of course, Penn is not to be seen a microcosm of society. A kiss in Italy is a friendly greeting. A kiss in China, a public declaration of love. Across cultures and time, the kiss has come to mean so many different things. Particularly in art history, the meaning of a kiss has been molded again and again, but the beauty of it never unwavering. To refresh your romantic side for this Valentine’s Day, here are some of art history’s famous kisses.
In all of art history, kisses have been awkward and passionate, depicted sometimes as a slight touch of the lips and others as full–on embraces. Some of the most beautiful representations are mere kisses on the cheek, like Gustav Klimt’s 1907 famous gilded portrait of two lovers, The Kiss. A hallmark of the Art Nouveau movement, this gold–leaf painting shows Klimt’s work at its finest, with a man holding the face of a blissful woman as he graces her golden cheek with his lips. This masterpiece channels the figures of Francisco Hayez’s mid–nineteenth century portrait, also entitled The Kiss, with added elements of illumination and japonisme, the craze for Japanese art.
Not too dissimilar is Henri de Toulouse–Lautrec’s In Bed: The Kiss, which steals a glance into the intimate moment of two lovers in bed. Each with their arms wrapped around the other, the man and woman press their lips against each other in a kiss that meets in the line of the painting’s diagonal. It’s a painting that blends the styles of impressionism and realism, with textured lines of blues and reds throughout. It’s both risqué and reserved in its passion, and the anonymity of the figures adds to its allure for the audience.
With modern art, the styles of representation began to change, but the kiss stayed as a subject for artists. René Magritte’s portrait, The Lovers, shows all the soft intimacy of an embrace between lovers, but hides the actual physical connection. The heads of his subjects are draped in flowing shrouds, and though they are kissing, their lips do not actually touch each other. Even without revealing identity or depicting any form of explicit physical action, the painting nevertheless imparts a sense of love and warmth between the couple. The texture of the cloth still conveys an overt sensuality between the two, yet there also remains a captivating element of mystery.
If we jump forward to the cultural revolution of the 1970’s, we can again find the kiss in art. One of my favorites from this time period is Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic portrait, Larry and Bob Kissing. Though Mapplethorpe is known for his controversial subject matter, he should also be recognized for his expertise in composition and balance. At first examination, the picture is stark and bare. Its subjects are centered, with one seated on a stool and both dressed in black leather. Despite all of this, Mapplethorpe still achieves a window into the intimacy of these lovers. There’s a sense of strength and confidence behind it, yet if it were cropped to the lovers’ faces, it would be an image of pure bliss. This photograph is not just a masterpiece of the kiss, but one that stands out in all of Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre.
But above all the others is Auguste Rodin’s 1882 sculpture, The Kiss. The first time I saw the sculpture was at the Musée Rodin in Paris on a family vacation. It sits at the center of an upstairs gallery of the museum, which used to be the Hôtel Biron. The windows and mirrors of the room emphasize the torsion of the sculpture, as it is one that should be viewed three–dimensionally from all angles. The male figure softly grasps the waist of his female lover, while she longingly drapes her arms around his neck in an embrace of fundamental passion. Like much of Rodin’s work, The Kiss is not about the fine details and the individual aspects, but about the shape and the feeling that the sum of the whole gives. He is the impressionist sculptor, and The Kiss is his reigning masterpiece—a cast of which sits in the Rodin Museum of Philadelphia.
So, this year, ask your Valentine or crush to go to an art museum with you. Not only is Wednesday usually a discount day around Philadelphia, but you never know how the romance you find between the frames might transfer to real life.