IT STARTED with a kiss. August Rodin’s larger-than-life marble sculpture entitled The Kiss, that is, depicting a pair of lovers locked in embrace.
It made the critics swoon in 1898 and was such a hit with the public that hundreds of bronze copies were made, helping it to become one of the most recognised and loved works of art in the world.
Now that the couple are taking up residence at the National Gallery in Edinburgh on a year-long loan from Tate Britain, Scotland’s art aficionados are puckering up in anticipation.
The Kiss shows the 13th-century Italian aristocrat Francesca da Rimini in a clinch with her husband’s younger brother, Paolo Malatesta. According to Dante’s Inferno, her husband killed them before their love was consummated and so in the sculpture their lips don’t actually touch. This tale of doomed passion interrupted for eternity inspired many playwrights, composers and artists in the 19th century, including Scottish artist Sir William Dyce, whose painting, Francesca da Rimini (1837), is also in the Gallery’s collection and spookily includes the disembodied hand of Francesca’s murderous husband lurking bottom left.
According to Tate Britain, The Kiss’s “blend of eroticism and idealism makes it one of the great images of sexual love”, and the Scottish National Gallery’s Michael Clarke agrees: “We are delighted that Rodin’s great hymn to love is coming to Scotland. Rodin was a wonderfully gifted sculptor – technically brilliant, with an astonishing ability to model the human form with sensuous realism. The Kiss is rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest artistic evocations of desire ever created.”
Rodin himself wasn’t convinced, somewhat grumpily describing it as “a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula”. We think someone hadn’t had a smooch for a while, that someone needed to be taken in hand and “kissed often, by someone who knows how” as Rhett Butler suggest to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. That great kissathon is one of many films, from Brief Encounter and Pretty Woman (ignore the fact that Richard Gere has been paying top dollar for the pleasure up till this point) to Lady And The Tramp, that feature kisses that have us all licking our lips. In art too, everyone from Klimt to Picasso to Lichtenstein have had a love affair with lovers.
Whatever Rodin’s dispassionate view, the public love The Kiss, almost as much as they love the act of pressing their “lips against the lips or other body parts of another” – the dictionary definition of the act. Kissing never goes out of fashion, and while academics don’t know much about its early history because it’s, ahem, an oral tradition, Vedic Sanskrit texts written in India around 1,500 BC refer to people doing it. Kissing crops up again with the Romans, whose custom of becoming betrothed by kissing passionately in front of a group of people persists with our post-vow wedding kiss. Witness the cheer when Wills and Kate gave the crowds what they wanted with a successful Buck House balcony smooch after their wedding, compared with the awkward mis-timed nose-clash that sealed his mis-matched parents’ fate.
Religion too was big on kissing until the Catholic Church substituted a pax board – a decorative panel that worshippers would kiss at communion time – rather than have the congregation sucking face in the 13th century, while the Protestant Reformation did away with it in services entirely in the 1500s. Killjoys.
The kiss persisted however – you can’t keep a good tongue down – because it’s a celebration of affection and desire. Those pecks, air kisses, smackers, snogs, lip locks, smooches, big wet ones and osculations all make us feel good. With a passionate kiss there’s a massive release of hormones and endorphins so our heart rate increases, blood vessels dilate and our bodies get more oxygen than just standing around shaking hands. What’s not to like?
Anne Chilton, sex therapist and head of professional practice for counselling at Relationship Scotland, says: “A kiss is such an intimate thing, whether it’s a friendly one from an aunty or between lovers, because it’s very personal and we open ourselves up. Rodin’s The Kiss is about the promise that the kiss is going to bring. Because of the space between the couple’s lips, it’s the anticipation of what it will lead to. It’s about desire, the potential of the pleasure to come. It’s not sexual, but very sensual.
“If we open ourselves up to accept a kiss we are allowing someone into us, as opposed to the air kiss or closed mouth, that says, ‘don’t come near’. That’s why sex workers won’t kiss because it’s too personal; they don’t want to share that very deep felt part of them. The kiss on your lips connects with all parts of your body and the lips are more personal that other parts. If someone kisses your mouth, you’re making eye contact, you’re trusting. It’s about what we give to another.”
As for The Kiss, art lovers may have flocked in their millions to see farmyard animals in formaldehyde, the holy virgin depicted in elephant dung or Duchamp’s Fountain urinal, but sometimes they just want to explore their romantic, old-fashioned side and gaze on lovers locked in a timeless, universal embrace. It seems, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.