Art Curatorial

From the Collection–Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss

Auguste Rodin (French 1840-1917), The Kiss (Paolo and Francesca), 1886. Painted plaster 34 x 20 1/2 x 23 1/4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Will Ross in Memory of Her Husband (M1966.117). Photo by Larry Sanders.

There is no ignoring it: today is Valentine’s Day.

There is also no ignoring the fact that love and lust have inspired terrific artwork. Perhaps the best artwork, if you are a romantic like me. I’m obviously not the first in the blogosphere to notice this–last week a sweet “10 Best Art Kisses of All Time” article made the email/Facebook/blog rounds. And, raise your hand if you ever had Gustav Klimt’s 1907 The Kiss on a poster? Me too.

In the Museum’s collection, a classic work to single out that focuses on art and love is the plaster cast of Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss (Paolo and Francesca). When I revisited The Kiss, my first question was:

Who are Paolo and Francesca?

I learned that Francesca was a 13th-century woman of noble birth. Her father was Guido de Polenta, the noble of Ravenna, Italy. Francesca was a contemporary of Dante (the poet of the Italian middle ages), and her love story was immortalized in his epic poem Divine Comedy (1308-21).

Francesca’s father, Guido de Polenta, had been at war with the rival Malatesta family. When they finally brokered a peace deal, Guido proposed the solidifying marriage of his daughter to the eldest son of Malatesta da Verucchio.  Francesca was engaged to Giovanni, a brave and capable man who was, unfortunately, physically deformed. Afraid that Francesca would refuse the marriage when she saw him, the fathers hatched a plan to instead marry the beautiful Francesca by proxy to Giovanni’s foxy brother Paolo without her knowledge. Of course, Paolo and Francesca fell in love before she discovered the deception.

Auguste Rodin, Detail of The Kiss (Paolo and Francesca), 1886. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Will Ross in Memory of Her Husband. Photo by the author.

As for their immediate connection, as Dante imagined it:

“When we had read how the desired smile,
was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
this one, who never shall be parted from me.”
–Inferno V, lines 133-135 (translated by Allen Mandelbaum)

The legal groom Giovanni was not pleased with all this true love and kissing nonsense between his married brother and his intended bride Francesca. The lovers were murdered by the hand of the slighted Giovanni.

Plays, artworks, and operas have been inspired by Francesca and Paolo’s love story. In some of the art, including Rodin’s The Kiss, the lovers’ lips remain parted, symbolizing their unrealized love.

When Rodin sculpted The Kiss in 1886, it was intended (along with his famous The Thinker) to be part of a bronze portal called The Gates of Hell, depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno, the first book of the Divine Comedy. The portal was intended for a never-built Decorative Arts Museum in Paris; though never realized as a whole, the doorway and its individual parts have become celebrated sculptures in their own right.

Auguste Rodin, Detail of The Kiss (Paolo and Francesca), 1886. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Will Ross in Memory of Her Husband. Photo by the author.

I’ve found it interesting how controversial this sculpture was in the late 19th century. It caused a stir not because of the nude figures or the illicit love affair, but because of its overt female eroticism. Here, we see Francesca as a willing and lustful participant in the ardor, not simply a passive object of Paolo’s desire. Her arm pulls Paolo’s head toward her face. When The Kiss came to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the committee in charge of French art decided it was too risque and put it in a special room requiring special permission to enter.

But no special permission required here at the Milwaukee Art Museum. You can see the sculpture in Gallery 11, with work of Impressionism and the Barbizon school.

Mel Buchanan is the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

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