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The Kiss: The Surprising History of Three Works of Love

The Kiss: The Surprising History of Three Works of Love
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The Kiss: The Surprising History of Three Works of Love

The Story of Three Kisses

When we think about representations of love in art, we often think immediately about ‘the kiss’, well kisses… Klimt, Rodin, Munch. Passionate, otherworldly, voracious. The kiss comes in many shapes and sizes and, as we shall see, seems to be about a lot more than just the meeting of lips: dangerous women, public preoccupations with death and disease, and the value of gold. Many of our most celebrated depictions of love were considered pornography at the time by a scandalized public and conservative critics, some were censored for years and even deemed morally ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. The three artworks below reveal not only our infatuation with love, but speak to the complicated social histories surrounding their creation and reception.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers), 1907-1908.
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers), 1907-1908.

BBC’s documentary series, A History of Art in Three Colours: Gold, tells the tale of Gustav Klimt’s version of The Kiss (1907-08) an allegorical depiction of a pair of lovers in an intimate embrace. Dr. James Fox, art historian, calls Klimt’s gilded and ornamental painting “the last word on love.” Klimt uses no less than “8 different kinds of gold leaf and many more different kinds of gold paint,” he explains, to create an opulent, jewel-like surface that glitters and gleams before the beholder. But why? According to Fox, Klimt’s use of gold was a: “desperate attempt to bring back gold from the brink because he has lived through a period in which gold has become debased, tacky… He is trying to say gold is the most luminous, otherworldly, spiritual thing we have, and therefore, we have to devote it to the most important things in the world. And for Klimt, the most important thing was love.”

Edvard Munch, Vampire (Love and Pain, 1893.
Edvard Munch, Vampire (Love and Pain, 1893.

Edvard Munch painted many versions of couples entwined in an embrace, losing their individuality and melding together into one. Perhaps the most interesting version is a painting originally entitled Love and Pain (1893), which caused a major sensation when it was first shown. A morally-panicked public was outraged by what they saw as its sad-masochistic undertones and implicit reference to houses of prostitution, explains Arifa Akbar. It evoked the deep-lying social anxiety surrounding women’s liberation and fears about female sexuality. While Munch stated it was “just a woman kissing a man on the neck,” critics described it as “a man locked in a vampire’s tortured embrace – her molten-red hair running along his soft bare skin.” From then on it was called Vampire, and Munch produced 6 different paintings based on it and many more woodcuts. Vampire recently sold for $35 million after being condemned by the Nazis as “morally degenerate” and being hidden away for over 70 years in the hands of a private collector.

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, 1889.
Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, 1889.

Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss (1889), a larger than life sculpture of pair of naked lovers locked in a passionate embrace, has been described as an idealized representation of youthful love and carnal desire. While the public adores it, its history has been controversial. The sculpture depicts Paolo and Francesca, an adulterous couple who fell in love and into each other’s arms while reading the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere, only to be discovered and murdered by Francesca’s husband, also Paolo’s brother. However, art historians in BBC’s The Private Life of a Masterpiece argue that The Kiss has its origins in Rodin’s “dark obsession with sex and death” and might well have been called “The Kiss of Death.” In this light, the young woman is read as a femme fatale seducing the man, drawing him into her deadly embrace. This equation of sex and death was common in Parisian society in 1880s when “the near pandemic of syphilis,” at that time incurable, ran rampant among prostitutes and in society at large and equaled a death sentence for anyone infected.

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