by Barry Dougherty
“If I create from the heart, nearly everything works: if from the head, almost nothing.” – Marc Chagall
At the Vitlycke Museum and Tanum’s rock carvings in Bohuslän, Sweden, visitors can view carvings from the Bronze Age, one of them being of a couple kissing. Clearly, love has been in the air for quite some time. It may have even slowed things up from inventing the wheel, which happened during the same era. But the artists of these early drawings, unrefined though they may look to present-day observers, still had a message to send–this thing called love should be shared with others.
As art progressed, love took several twists and turns. There were couples with honeymoon eyes, such as in The Honeysuckle Bower, by Peter Paul Rubens (1609), depicting the artist sitting and holding hands with his new young bride among honeysuckle blossoms. And of course, the ever-present cupids, guiding the hearts of those mythological maidens in François Boucher’s Nymphs and Cupids (c. 1769). The flirtatious couple sharing a swing in Springtime (Pierre Auguste Cot 1873) kept the sleepy, first love dream theme alive that had been prevalent through so many eras.
But with the onset of WWI, as modernism began to flourish some artists took love to darker depths. Egon Schiele’s The Embrace that he painted in 1917 is recognized as one of the most sensual and romantic artworks to come out of that era. Two bodies cling together among the folds of a bedsheet, holding each other tight to escape the horror of the bombs and destruction outside. German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner joined the war in 1914, but his mental health soon collapsed as is evidenced in his 1915 painting Self-Portrait As A Soldier. The shell-shocked painter stands in uniform, his face yellow and eyes dazed, his right hand severed at the wrist (although Kirchner had not really lost his hand). Kirchner’s pre-war paintings were sensual primeval nudes however in this self-portrait he is turning away from the naked woman, his bloody stump creating an image of sexual despair.
It wasn’t all gloom and doom on the canvas of love, however, as seen in Marc Chagall’s The Birthday that he painted in 1915 a few weeks before marrying his adoring Bella. It’s a stunning example of Chagall’s playful wit and sense of the fantastical, sharing his unabashed celebration of romantic love. As the artist once said of his beloved muse, “I had only to open my window, and blue air, love, and flowers entered with her. Dressed all in white or in black, she has long been flying over my canvases guiding my art.”
Man Ray brought a cinematic kiss to life in his photograph aptly named The Kiss. The black and white print from 1922 is a closeup of a couple’s lips only slightly touching, making the offering even more delicate and sensual. The destruction of love is something that artists were born to experience, as evidenced by The Scream’s painter Edvard Munch’s comment, “I was subjected here to the whole disaster of love—and I was for several years nearly mad.” Through the modern era to contemporary they have laid bare their shredded hearts into masterpieces. In 1879 Monet painted Camille on her Deathbed, a portrait of his wife and frequent model who died from illness at 32. The haunting portrait is an homage to his departed love. He later wrote to a friend saying, “Finding myself at the deathbed of a loved one, I was surprised by the colors that death brought to her immobile face.”
Frida Kahlo, on the other hand, dealt with the heartache of learning of the affair between her husband Diego Rivera and her sister Cristina by painting A Few Small Nips (Passionately in Love), in 1935. The canvas depicts another woman bearing the pain of a broken heart, which she based on a newspaper account of an unfaithful woman murdered in an act of jealousy. The murderer had defended his actions before the judge by saying, “But it was just a few small nips!” Basquiat was inconsolable when hearing of the death of his friend Andy Warhol and his 1987 painting, Gravestone, is a tribute to his loss of someone he loved deeply. The works depicting variations on love in art throughout the ages is as prolific as it is ever-evolving.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s In Bed: The Kiss (1892) features two women in a lover’s embrace. It expresses the tender love shared by the couple, as though they were fearful of being separated from each other. Whereas The Kissing Coppers that Banksy graffitied on a wall next to a pub in 2004, not only denounces homophobia but is also ridiculing authority. Two men kissing on the street is no longer an act they need to fear, in his vision it becomes more protest art than the act itself. And Robert Indiana confirmed in his 1965 work, LOVE, that those four letters can flirt and still swoon on the canvas, proving that even a word can be worth a thousand pictures.
Regardless of what inspires an artist to infuse love into their art, be it the socio-political climate, mores, grief or rebellion, it is their passion that will push them to explore new and innovative concepts that will take them to the next movement in art. Their imaginations are as limitless as their hearts’ desires.
Barry Dougherty is a New York writer whose articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Antiques and the Arts Weekly, and The News Times, among others. He is the author of several books including How To Do It Standing Up and The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes. He has been the head writer for the Friars Club Roasts and is a contributing writer on the Living Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears essay tour. He is the principal of BMD Communications, a multi-faceted writing services company specializing in writing, editing and PR.