Issue Number: 92
Editorial: body language
A kiss is just a kiss, or is it? Rodin’s famous sculpture exudes a carnal energy that still resonates today. Michelangelo and Bernini portrayed the human body touched by the Divine; Leonardo dissected its inner workings. But no one had ever devoted the same curiosity to exploring the physical and emotional dynamism of the human body – female as well as male – in art.
As can be seen in both Jennifer Gough-Cooper’s cover photograph and in the marble and the plaster maquette in the RA’s ‘Rodin’ exhibition, The Kiss depicts an embrace between two apparently equal partners. It is based on the tale in Dante’s Inferno of the first – and last – kiss between Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta, moved to passion as they read the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere. Her husband finds them thus and stabs them to death. Since they die as adulterers, they are condemned for all eternity to be blown about in a violent storm, forever near each other yet unable to touch or rest.
Rodin focuses on their fateful kiss, provoking more universal questions about what a first, furtive kiss feels like and how to express irrepressible, if tragic, love. Interestingly, the woman seems to pull the more tentative man down into their clinch, a possible sign of corrupting female charms, or of Rodin’s belief in the independent spirit and sexual freedom of women, as suggested both by Martin Gayford and by curator Catherine Lampert in the catalogue. Perhaps, they argue, Rodin can be seen as an early feminist.
Rodin’s greatest works show how momentous events affect individuals. In The Burghers of Calais, each condemned Frenchman expresses his sacrifice in a different way, be it through gestures of anguish, anger or stoicism. Poignantly, this group stands adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, a record of British victory but also a reminder of the human cost of war. In ‘USA Today’ (page 66), the RA’s exhibition of new American art from the Saatchi Collection, young artists working in the US confront political problems such as the war in Iraq in highly personal ways. Many express a pessimism about ever being able to effect the kind of social change that occurred in the 1960s. As a result, they are creating nihilistic images of the body that are either anti-aesthetic or overly glossy.
Rodin would probably not have approved. Ultimately he believed in the beauty of the human body, whether in his nude models, his own work or in ‘the divinity of human form’ he saw in ancient Chola bronzes. These exquisite sculptures from southern India, on show at the RA this autumn, combine the sensual and the spiritual in ways that also inspire the British sculptor Stephen Cox. As he admires Cox’s ‘numinous yet non-sectarian work’, the writer Simon Wilson notes that ‘we live in a world which, surely, could do with a lot more spirituality and a little less religion.’
Chola bronzes, Rodin and young American artists offer many messages, but perhaps one of them is that old slogan: make love, not war.
Sarah Greenberg, Editor
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