Kisses on Valentine’s Day – by Helena Roy

Today, the hype surrounding all things pink, floral and heart-shaped is often thought to have been created by cynical businessmen selling cards and rose-clutching teddy bears. The sickly (rather than sweet) imagery thrown indiscriminately from billboards and social media the world over, is the impetus for waves of sarcastic disinterest or humorous indignation in the weeks running up to the love-it-or-hate-it day.

For me, this gets a little more tiresome each year – hearts and roses can only entertain the eye so much. Auguste Rodin said ‘The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live’… an idea that doesn’t necessarily equate with Hallmark cards. In light of this, I hope that an overview of images of love in art, and the complex myriad of perspectives they convey, might act as some sort of antidote.

Theatrical and ostentatious body language imparts intimacy: faces seemingly indivisibly connected and arms wrapped around each other. There’s an uncomfortable feeling of intrusion in ‘In Bed the Kiss’ (1892) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. ‘Cupid and Psyche’ (1794) by Antonio Canova relates a desperation to the embrace, and a sense of panicked revival. ‘The Kiss’ (1889) by Auguste Rodin is just as intense but at once far more peaceful.

 

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, In Bed the Kiss (1892)
'Cupid and Psyche' (1794) by Antonio Canova

 

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss (1882)

Art separates lust and love. ‘Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City’ (1980) by Nan Goldin is full to the brim of the former. Compare this to ‘Anna and Joachim at the Golden Gates’ (1305) by Giotto – here embrace is affectionate and restrained, a sign of friendship above all else.

'Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City' (1980) by Nan Goldin
'Anna and Joachim at the Golden Gates' (1305) by Giotto

The kiss is recurrently shown as a bubble of escape.  Klimt’s iconic ‘The Kiss’ (1907-8) has a natural innocence and mythical light to its embrace; the figures are isolated and hidden amongst swirls of flowery colour and dusty gold. In Francesco Hayez‘s ‘The Kiss’ (1859) a couple have escaped and are surrounded by stone. ‘Paolo and Francesca da Rimini’ (1867) by Dante Rossetti has a similar comfortable isolation, with the couple at the centre, cushioned by folds of darker fabric. In ‘Les Amants’ (1927-8) by Rene Magritte, fabric, escape and isolation are taken to new visual extremes; the kiss lets the couple mask and forget all other emotions and fears in a blanket of opaque white.

'The Kiss' (1907-8) by Gustav Klimt
'Paolo and Francesca da Rimini' (1867) by Dante Rossetti
'Les Amants' (1927-8) by Rene Magritte
Francesco Hayez, The Kiss (1859)

 

Sometimes other emotions are hard to hide, and the kiss is marred by desperate, overriding feelings. In ‘The Kiss on V-J Day’ (1945) Alfred Eisenstaedt, love is not the focus, but instead relief from war and tired victory. ‘The Kiss’ (1962) by Roy Lichtenstein is grieving and fearful; Edvard Munch‘s ‘The Kiss II’ (1897) is harrowing in its creeping surroundings and dark torment.

'The Kiss on V-J Day' (1945) Alfred Eisenstaedt

‘The Kiss’ (1962) by Roy Lichtenstein
'The Kiss II' (1897) by Edvard Munch

Edward Hopper said ‘If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.’

When ‘I love you’ is being beamed all over the globe in pink bubble writing, this can seem achingly accurate. Art is the ultimate way to express love or obsession; when artists turn to the kiss, the possibilities for expression are infinite.

With thanks to Wikipedia, MoMA and the Louvre for photographs.

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