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A Kiss is Never Just a Kiss

By Catriona Miller

You might think art galleries were good places to find romance. All that beauty, all those stories of love, all that naked flesh. But the longer you look and the more you know, the less lovely love seems.

The First Kiss

Giotto is usually credited with painting the first kiss in Western art. It is a tender image of middle age devotion, as Anne and Joachim meet to share the happy news that they are finally to have a child. The trouble is, worshippers looking at this would have known what happens next. It's the start of a tragedy: their son will be John the Baptist, destined to be beheaded at the whim of Salome. Suddenly a kiss of joy looks almost like one of consolation, and you start focusing on the ominous figure in black.

Asking for Trouble

Eighteenth-century artists loved romantic intrigue and The Stolen Kiss was a favourite subject. A wealthy young woman has left her friends socialising in the other room, perhaps on the pretext of getting her shawl. Really she is meeting her lover. But will it end happily? The strong diagonal of messy fabric which draws your eye to her low-cut dress and the deep shadows behind suggest not. The mystery extends to the artist which may be Fragonard (famous for The Swing) or a female painter, Marguerite Gérard, whose work is often misattributed to him.

The Femme Fatale

It wasn't just women in danger. Art is full of mermaids and sirens who would lure an unsuspecting man to death or enchantment. Look how the knight is becoming trapped by the enchantress' tail and the thorny branches springing up around him. This watercolour is sometimes linked to Keats' poem Lamia based on a serpent-woman in Greek mythology, sometimes it is titled The Knight and the Mermaid. Whatever the exact inspiration, it is one of a number of such late nineteenth century images. They are often connected masculine fears about to the rise of educated, independent New Women. Although in this case the artist is female.

Edvard Munch, 'The Kiss', 1897, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway (Wikimedia Commons)

Losing yourself

Becoming inseparable is a such a romantic idea, until it is taken literally. Munch's work frequently portrays a jaundiced view of love and sex, and his Kiss feels increasingly sinister when you start to focus on the featureless blobs of merged flesh. Yet the figures emanate an infectious warmth. The intense intimacy, with the bright world shut out and the curving brush strokes cradling the figures' heads, somehow wins through.

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Hayez's Medieval romance is as perfect a pastiche of history as an old Hollywood Technicolor film. A mysterious, passionate embrace with just a hint of tragedy - look at those figures lurking through the doorway. Yet this is less about individuals in love and more about political symbolism. It was commissioned to promote the idea of an alliance with France during the nineteenth century fight for Italian unification. The colours deliberately recall the French flag. But Hayez puts his heart and soul into it: even knowing all that, you can still hear violins.

Klimt's Kiss

Arguably the most famous kiss in art, this is also a litmus test: are you a romantic or a realist? The gold, the flowers, the pattern create a such a beautiful intensity that you almost ignore the figures. Does he seem domineering? Does her pose seem awkwardly tense? Is her hand on his an encouragement or a restraint? Why are they on the edge of a precipice? Some historians argue that this is Orpheus and Eurydice, captured at the moment when she sinks back into death, lost to him forever. Some see it as indicative of Klimt's own preference for sexually submissive women. Others just focus on the closed lids of her ecstatic swoon.

Maybe February is not the time to be cynical about love, but the best art always repays a second look. Go to a gallery and have a (friendly) argument with your partner about what you see. Then enjoy kissing and making up afterwards.


About the Writer:

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.

Twitter: @cmillerartlife 


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