My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love and Other Kisses Throughout (Modern Art) History

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Love has been a source of inspiration to artists and writers and musicians since…forever. No joke: one of the first known depictions of a couple in an embrace is a carving that is dated somewhere around 10,000 B.C. known as the Ain Sakhri Lovers. But it doesn’t matter the kind of love — love between couples, love between friends, or love between family — love is something that is celebrated in the world of art.

But then there’s times isn’t.

Take the kiss. The depiction of such an innocent gesture can inspire violence or passion, depending on who is doing the kissing. Here are just a few examples of how the same loving embrace has been historically received throughout history:

My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love

My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love by Dmitri Vrubel depicts Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev and German politician Erich Honecker engaged in a socialist fraternal kiss. The painting is an almost exact reproduction of a photo taken during a celebration of the founding of the German Democratic Republic. Vrubel was introduced to the image after a girl gave him a copy of the original photograph, which he said he was turned off by. He had to come back and restore the work in 2009 after years of it being defaced by taggers, some of whom implore for the end of homophobia, and others who exhibit it. As for the work itself, it’s not overtly sexual, just as its reference wasn’t. The “deadly love” isn’t a romantic one; it’s the love of party over country, the love of party over people.

These days, the Eastern Berlin Wall has become an outdoor art gallery of sorts, and My God…is one of the most prominent pieces featured in the space. It has inspired some interesting derivative works, including Make Everything Great Again, a mural painted in Lithuania in 2016 of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in the same pose.

Kissing Coppers

Notorious English street artist Banksy created Kissing Coppers in 2004, a stencil of two British policeman in full uniform locked in an embrace, on the outside wall of the Prince Albert Pub in Bristol, England. Bristol is historically a LGBTQ-friendly city, but when the piece initially went up, England was battling an uptick in hate crimes against its LGBTQ citizens. The graffiti left on the work reflected such. Over time the piece suffered so much damage, the pub decided to have the piece removed and replaced it with a replica.

This portrayal of two men kissing was nothing revolutionary; same-sex intimacy has been a feature in classic and modern art since the Sistine Chapel. But the portrayal of such intimacy among authority figures, figured regarded as traditionally “masculine”, is likely what elicited such strong reactions. Perhaps Banksy aimed to normalize the portrayal of homosexual intimacy in a modern world, or he wanted to make a statement about the rise of hate crimes taking place at the time. Either way, the people who tried so hard to ruin his work ended up making it one of his most recognizable pieces.

V-J Day in Times Square

A work featuring a more well-received kiss is V-J Day in Times Square. It’s a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt that features a Navy sailor kissing a nurse on Victory over Japan Day (“V-J Day”) in New York City’s Times Square. The photo was taken on August 14, 1945 and published a week later in Life magazine, in a twelve-page feature entitled “Victory Celebrations”. At first blush, it looks exactly how it’s remembered — a moment of jubilation and pride, taken when two people were caught up in the joy of knowing the war was that much closer to being over.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Eisenstaedt’s models were unknown to him; at the time, he was just walking around, taking pictures of anything and everything that caught his eye. After the photo was published, people started to come forward, claiming to be either the nurse or the sailor. The one credible claim came from Grete Zimmer Friedman, who said she had not wanted to be kissed, and did not know the man that kissed her. The truth behind the photo takes on a different meaning in a post “Me Too” society, but for years the idea that this embrace was not wanted seemed inconsequential to the nostalgia that the image invoked.

Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss

Some kisses don’t have such unfortunate stories behind them. The Kiss, an oil and gold leaf painting by the famed Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, is a work that has garnered critical acclaim and charmed its audiences in the century since its inception. Klimt was no stranger to the portrayal of passion and intimacy, and The Kiss is seen a seminal piece in his overall body of work.

Klimt’s The Kiss is a work looked upon with tenderness and reverence, for the most part. Its delicate embrace and use of color inspired costume designer Eiko Ishioka while she worked on the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a seemingly simple piece, with geometric shapes painted into the gown that seems to shroud the lovers. At the time of its completion, Klimt was coming off a controversy from his previous works, known collectively as “The Vienna Ceiling Paintings”. The Kiss had earned him some much-needed goodwill, and the painting was immediately bought by the Austrian government.

Pablo Picasso’s The Kiss

Picasso loved love, in his life with his mistresses and in his work, with the body of erotica that he created in his later years. The kiss was a pose he would regularly come back to throughout his career, creating multiple drafts in pencil and oil paintings.

Picasso’s oil painting The Kiss came later in his career, during a time when his subject matter veered into more erotic territory. All the works created in this vein were featureless when it came to backgrounds, so the audience could focus on the couple at hand. The man and woman depicted in each rendering are so close it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, signifying how through an act of intimacy, two become one. It’s interesting to note that all the couples in his works feature a much older man with a younger woman (his own preferred dynamic when it came to relationships).

Rene Magritte’s The Lovers

Magritte’s take on the kiss is certainly unique, compared to the pieces mentioned above. Completed in 1928, this oil on canvas depicts a man and woman kissing each other through face coverings. The painting is sparse in terms of composition, to place all focus and attention on the covered lovers. Perhaps this is a nod to the unrequited desire that was prevalent in all of Magritte’s work, but whatever the reason, when looking on them you can’t help but wonder what is keeping them apart. Magritte’s Lovers has enjoyed its enigmatic reputation since its origin, and likely will into the future.

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