The Kiss; the infamous sculpture by Auguste Rodin between 1901-4 immediately conjures up romantic and passionate sentiments of an intense love shared by a man and woman; one moment of which is captured and preserved in marble. Yet there is more to this sculpture than a depiction of love – it is in fact the embodiment of a forbidden and adulterous love that ultimately ends in murder.
The man and woman in the sculpture represent Paolo and Francesca, whose tragic and doomed love is documented in Dante’s Inferno. The two respective characters are not fictitious and were real life historical contemporaries of Dante, however it is the version as it appears in the Inferno that is portrayed in the sculpture.
It is in the second circle of hell where Dante encounters the spirits of Paolo and Francesca, the circle reserved for those who had committed sins of the flesh. Francesca was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, who entrusted her into the care of his brother Paolo who was also married. Whilst reading a book about the legend of King Arthur, they succumbed to their passion and desires when reading of Lancelot and Guinevere, one affair inspired by another. No sooner had they committed their act of physical expression than Francesca’s husband appeared and stabbed them both repeatedly to death.
The moment of their love captured by Rodin is the fateful one as indicated by the book slipping from Paolo’s hand. No doubt the book of Guinevere and Lancelot that has been discarded in a moment of heated passion. It is this specified moment that leads to their deaths at the hands of Francesca’s husband Gianciotto. Although he is not included in the sculpture, his presence is implied as the star-crossed lovers are murdered by him after he bears witness to their actions. One can only imagine upon looking at the sculpture that they had a short amount of time to live after the depicted embrace. The sculpture in a sense does not emit sentiments of love and harmony, but sets the scene for a double murder.
Both of the figures are shown without any clothing which alludes to associations of Adam and Eve and the sins of the flesh. It was Eve who first committed sin and the implication in The Kiss by referring to Adam and Eve is that it is the woman, Francesca, who instigates the deed and the man, Paolo, is the unfortunate partner that she corrupts. This is implied further in the position of the two figures. The male figure Paolo, with the relaxed stance of his arms and hands appears passive; the action, energy and persistence of the piece stems from the pose of Francesca suggesting that she is the instigator and, whilst he is a participant in the deed, he is not the leader.
The poses of the figures, the forgotten book and the urgency of their shared moment brings an undertone of compulsion to the piece; a desire that was beyond their control, which could be emblematic of Rodin’s own feelings. Throughout the sculptor’s life, he was prone to infatuations of his own. Despite being with Rose Beuret, his long term partner and mother of his only child, he fell in love with his nineteen year old student Camille Claudel.
A talented sculptor herself, she frequently modelled for Rodin. The compulsive sentiments in The Kiss, the adulterous nature, and the woman as the perpetrator whilst the man is acted upon may signal is own feelings about a clandestine love and that it was more like a curse. It could be expressive of his affair with Camille Claudel and that he was helpless in the matter.
The Kiss has its place cemented as an iconic and infamous work of artistry. The initial impression of the sculpture is of a pure and passionate love, but not all is quite as it seems. Exploration into the history of the piece casts a whole new light on the depicted scene and gives the viewer a perspective that dramatically differs from its initial impression. As the spirits of the doomed lovers state to Dante in the Inferno “Love has led us to a unique end.”