Rodin Works: The Kiss
'The Kiss' is inspired by Dantes 'Divine Comedy' and also known as 'Paolo and Francesca' (not to be mixed up with several horizontal versions of the same name).
In Canto V of the 'Inferno', Dante and Virgil meet the illicit love couple Paolo and Francesca in the Second Circle of Hell, where the carnal sinners are punished. Dante's narration is based on historical facts that must have deeply impressed him as a young man: In 1275, Francesca, daughter of Guida Vecchio da Polenta of Ravenna, was married for political reasons to Giovanni Malatesta, son and heir of the Lord of Rimini. Giovanni was physically deformed and Francesca fell in love with his younger brother Paolo, a handsome Captain of the People in Florence. The love couple was stabbed to death by Francesca's jealous husband. Francesca was the mother of a nine-year-old daughter, while Paolo, who was married as well, left two children behind. This occurred in 1285, when Dante, raised in Florence, was 17 years old. During the last years of his life in exile, Dante lived at the court of Francesca's nephew Guido, Lord of Ravenna, so that we may conclude this human tragedy played more than just a peripheral role in Dante's life.
In the Divina Commedia, Francesca relates to Dante how both were taken by the reading of Lancelot's love till Paolo gave his sister-in-law this fatal kiss, not suspecting they were being observed by Giovanni (or Giancotto), Lord of Rimini:
As a reference to Dante's narration, only the book in Paolo's left hand has remained. The scene, devoid of decoration and allusion, is concentrated on the performance of the kiss itself. The bodies are shivering with anticipation and are revelling in their emotions.
As demonstrated by Michael Klinkenberg, Rodin must have used the adaption of Dante's Inferno by Rivarol. The linguist Rivarol had produced no straight translation, but rather had adapted the poem's idiom and some narrative details in order to transpose and "elevate" Dante's creation till it met the stylistic criteria of his own time. In the discussed scene, Rivarol had inserted a description of the book, sliding from Paolo's hand - a detail not mentioned in Dante's original text, but explicitly depicted by Rodin. It was also Rivarol who had induced a positive valuation of the adultry condemned by Dante, by closing the scene with a sentence completely of his own:
Initially, the group, already included in the third maquette of 'The Gates of Hell', was to take a dominant position on its left door, building a counter-weight to 'Ugolino and his Sons' on the right wing. After viewing an early version of this monumental composition in Rodin's studio in 1885, Mirbeau reported on a seated Francesca with "her arms around her lover's neck, abandoning herself to Paolo's kiss and embrace with a movement at once passionate and chaste." But as observed by Elsen, among others, in Rodin's interpretation of the subject it rather looks as if Francesca herself has taken the initiative. Whereas in 'The Minotaur' (1886), a greedy male brute has forced a resisting virgin onto his furry lap, in 'The Kiss' it is the woman who intendingly drapes her leg over her partner's limbs. In the early version Mirbeau had seen, Paolo's right hand is touching Francesca´s tigh with only three fingertips, the thumb standing off. Compared to the sensual flow of the female body, Paolo's gestures appear stiff and reluctant. Already Paul Claudel - who interpreted the work as a token for his sister's surrender to the woed sculptor - criticised Paolo´s attitude as that of a man sitting at the dinner table, the woman being served to him.
By September 1887, the 'Ugolino' group had been moved to the left wing; 'The Kiss' had been replaced by another representation of the famous love couple, 'Fugit Amor', now at the right leaf, showing Paolo and Francesca falling down together, Paolo desperately clutching to his lover. Maybe the change was made because the half-life-size 'Kiss' was simply too large, maybe because - due to its affirmative stance introduced by Rivarol - this tender embrace looked too idyllic against the gloomy background of the doors.
In 1887, Rodin executed 'The Kiss' in a small plaster version (probably) under the title 'The Lovers'. The same year, this work was shown for the first time in the Gallery Georges Petit in Paris, then in Brussels. His interpretation of pure pleasure shocked the public. The incensed critics, who were already excited by his 'Balzac', were urging Rodin to rename his sculpture simply 'The Kiss'. Rodin himself did not understand much of this turmoil, describing his composition to Paul Gsell as rather conventional:
"The embrace of The Kiss is undoubtedly very attractive", he acknowledged. "But I have found nothing in this group. It is a theme frequently treated in the academic tradition, a subject complete in itself and artifically isolated from the world surrounding it; it is a big ornament sculpted according to the usual formula and which focuses attention on the two personages instead of opening up wide horizons to daydreams."
1888 Rodin received finally a commission for a marble version by the Directorate of Fine Arts. 'The Kiss' was enlarged to more than twice its original size and executed in marble by Rodin's highly talented praticien Jean Turcan. Turcan's efforts, however, were interrupted, so that this version could only be presented at the 1898 May Salon of the Sociéte Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Amazingly enough, in this version of the group, that by now is recognized by a worldwide public as a symbol of erotic passion, Paolo is not equipped for having sex. Only for the so-called "Lewes Kiss", ordered by the private collector and archeologist Edward Perry Warren, the male genitals were worked out, as requested by Warren in writing. In June 1900, Rodin's secretary William Rothenstein noted:
Il [Warren] m´écrit de vous prier, comme c´est pour
lui-même qu´il désire 'le baiser' de bien vouloir, dans la réplique,
modeler le sexe de l´homme, comme aurait fait un Grec - il suppose que
dans le groupe du Luxembourg vous avez un peu supprimé ce detail, à
cause de la pudeur muséique.
The Warren example was executed in Pentelican marble - a most brittle and demanding material - and shown in the Town Hall of the City of Lewes, till it provoked the indignation of the local citizenship and was stored in a barn over decades. Only in the 1970's, the precious sculpture was rediscovered and transferred to the Tate Gallery in London.
Also in the year 1900, a further marble example was ordered by the initiator of the Copenhagen Sculpture Museum, Carl Jacobsen.
The Barbedienne-LeBlanc Foundry, which in 1898 obtained a 20-year license to produce an unnumbered mass edition of Rodin´s most popular sculptures, used a plaster drawn from Turcan´s marble version to have a reduction made. Of this "third-hand" work (Elsen ), lacking much of the original detail, 319 examples were sold. Even after Rodin´s death, the foundry continued to distribute illegal copies, which ended in a trial and imprisonment for its owners.
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