XXXXXXX: Art kisses

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The Independent Culture
'LADIES AND gentlemen, please bear in mind / Kisses in the graveyard are hard to find,' warns Auden and I see - to my surprise - that there are not many kisses to be found in art galleries either. Nudes and beauties, yes, in all periods. Dashing types, the lovelorn, adventuresses and woman-seeking warriors: these we know from any amount of baroque and romantic art. But we are seldom given the sight of people actually kissing each other.

Why should this be? Surely artists, both women and men, are as keen on sensuality as anyone else. Keener, probably. The difference must be in the nature of artistic expression. Art is visual; kissing is not. We kiss with closed eyes but we look at the world, and at painting and sculpture, with open eyes. It is not true that love is blind. Love begins with a seraphic bargain between mind and eye. It is sight, not touch or taste, that motivates the loving artist.

I know this is to ignore much Asiatic art and in particular Indian sculpture. In Christian Europe, kissing begins with a religious tragedy, the deposition from the cross. The most chaste and hopeless of kisses is that bestowed on the dead Christ by the Virgin Mary. Sometimes the Virgin is shown as cradling her son. Far more domestic, and perhaps more moving is the way that the Dutch 15th-century artist shows Mary's kiss. It is as though she were trying to breathe new life into his corpse.

When Christianity is least powerful, kissing is most indulged. In wanton societies, we find an element of subterfuge, of game-playing, of the delicious thrill of disobedience to social etiquette. So it is with the Mozartian painting of Fragonard. His kisses are just as much about social pleasure as personal relations. The Stolen Kiss would not be so effective were it not set in an affluent home near the French court. And its drama concerns privacy, as so often in kissing pictures. The kiss has been stolen not so much from the girl as from the people in the next room who might find that this bold lad has come through the boudoir window.

The most interesting kisses are usually illicit, and in the 19th century this led artists to enclosed and wicked scenes. Toulouse-Lautrec's girl with a client in a cafe cares nothing for propriety, but much more compelling are drawings and prints (they have often been kept hidden) which show kisses between naked women. Lesbians interested Courbet, Degas, Picasso and others. It was almost an obsession with Rodin, whose sketchbooks and minor sculptures are filled with such embraces.

At the same time, it was Rodin who brought the private kiss into the public realm. However familiar, his huge sculpture The Kiss is still worth looking at again (and, happily, it is on show in the Tate at the moment). Here is a scene that is both lascivious and part of the elevated tradition of the public monument. It is also declaratively anti-Christian: a book is slipping from the hand of the male figure. It is Dante; the great poet of Christendom has been publicly forgotten. At the turn of the century other kisses have a decadent, even demonic message. Beardsley's Salome kisses the severed head of the Baptist. Klimt's image of an embrace is like someone eating someone else. Munch was interested in the kiss of a vampire-woman - deadly and blood-sucking.

In our own century, sensual thirst turns into rage. No artist has been more physical than Picasso, or more aware of love in all its moods. But when he paints a kiss it is always with destruction in mind. The most frightening examples are beach scenes - the beach was the arena of life and death, not just of a holiday. After Picasso the theme disappears from serious art, although kisses by Lichtenstein and Warhol will always recall the heady, hedonistic Sixties. In this small way, photography and film really have superseded painting and sculpture.