The Social and Cultural Evolution of a Gesture of Love
Not everyone might know that July 6th is World Kiss Day, a time for remembering the importance of one of the most universal gestures of human behavior can be, as well as the variety of meanings that a kiss can represent.
The ultimate symbol of love, the kiss has always represented a model of inspiration for painters, sculptors, poets, photographers, etc. When we talk about “kisses” in the art world, in fact, we can’t help referring to a series of works that have consecrated the gesture over the centuries and become the symbols of epochal social and cultural transformation.
As a sublime moment of love and passion, the kiss has also contributed to legitimizing “natural” changes in customs, ideas, values and traditions that have characterized peoples and their cultures.
The force of the kiss has been portrayed over the centuries not only by painters and sculptors but also by photographers and street artists, who have succeeded in immortalizing unique and extraordinary moments rich in meaning and value and making them a part of our collective history.
Among the works of art whose portrayal of a kiss has most forcefully represented a stimulus for social change, it’s impossible not to recall Kissing Coppers by Banksy, one of street art’s most important representatives and whose true identity is still unknown. No ordinary mural, Kissing Coppers was a hotly-debated and extremely provocative work of art; an image of homosexuality that pokes fun at authority but also invites people to discuss and reflect on the theme of homophobia, extremely current in modern societies. Homosexuality, in fact, is often concealed in the military and elsewhere. For seven years this work was displayed on a wall next to the Prince Albert pub in Brighton, where it became something of a tourist attraction. In 2011, after being damaged on several occasions, the “kiss” was transferred to canvas and a facsimile put up in its place. The original work was sold first by the pub’s owner to a gallery in New York, and then at auction for €420,000 at the FAAM in Miami, Florida’s most prestigious auction house.
Another famous kiss is the one photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt in New York in August 1945, in the midst of celebrations for the end of World War II. Eisenstaedt’s photo, known by various names (“V-J Day in Times Square,” “V-Day”), shows an American sailor kissing a young woman on August 14th, 1945 in Times Square, after victory was declared against Japan. The beauty of the moment captured by the photographer with his Leica is represented by the overpowering and liberating kiss, a symbol of renewed freedom and the end of an era of suffering and pain.
Naturally, the kiss was celebrated by painters and sculptors in the past as well. Of great renown is The Kiss by Venetian artist Francesco Hayez, portraying two young lovers kissing each other with extraordinary passion, and conserved today at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. Because of its incredible potency, the scene was immediately recognized as bearing messages of freedom and was transformed into the manifesto for Italian Romanticist art. The work contains a great symbolic value, representing an homage to a newly-unified Italy; the artist, in fact, purposely highlighted the colors of the Italian flag in the clothes of embracing lovers: the red and green in the young man’s leggings and the inside of his cloak, and the white of the young woman’s dress.
Despite the irresistible emotional charge Hayez was able to convey, his painting cannot compare, as far as passion and intensity are concerned, with the kiss portrayed by Auguste Rodin in his sculptural group from the years 1888 and 1889. The work was originally conceived as part of The Gates of Hell, a great portal over twenty feet tall that the Frenchman was creating for the new Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The marble sculpture, nearly six and half feet in height, portrays the passionate embrace of Paolo and Francesca recounted in the 5th canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy, of which the sculptor was a great admirer. The story of the two unfortunate lovers ends in a well-known tragedy: Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, Gianciotto, but as she read aloud the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere with her brother-in-law, she was unable to resist the temptation of the love that was blossoming between them. A romance that began with a kiss, and ended in death.
Even Roy Lichtenstein, one of American Pop Art’s greatest representatives, looked to the kiss in one of his most important works: Kiss V. The scene, a skillful re-elaboration of a comic strip vignette, portrays a couple who are consumed with love. The painting stylizes the figures using the Pop Art lexicon, expanding the emotional embrace to present an image charged with innuendo. In fact it isn’t clear whether the two lovers are embracing after a long period of separation or on the verge of parting ways, nor whether their tears are out of joy or desperation.
Yet the representation of a kiss doesn’t always imply happiness, passion or love. Paradoxically, in some cases it can actually be likened to an omen of death, or a distressing memory. This, for example, is the impression given in The Lovers, the famous 1928 painting by René Magritte. This work portrays two lovers kissing, but their heads are covered by white sheets which prevent them from seeing each other or communicating, instilling a sense unease and anguish. The mysterious and disturbing scene, related to death and the impossibility of communication, has occasioned numerous interpretations over the years. Some believe the Belgian painter wanted to express the impossibility of modern man’s ever truly knowing his fellow men, typical of modern societies increasingly characterized by the phenomenon of incommunicability, recently been exacerbated by the growth of social media.