You kiss me by the book: a review of Andy Warhol’s The Kiss

What is a kiss? It is physical? Emotional? A contract, an understanding, a beginning, an end? We hear the words ‘love’, ‘intimacy’, ‘beauty’ and ‘soul mate’ so often, do they still have any meaning? Or should we demonstrate these sentiments through actions? Is kissing always an act of honesty, or it is sometimes an act of deceit? The characteristics of love and the act of kissing have interested many artists and cinema directors throughout the 20th century, and we can also find historic and contemporary examples of artworks focusing on the subject of ‘The Kiss’.

The obsessive and methodical Pop Artist Andy Warhol would have been aware that he was revisiting a theme already explored by Gustav Klimt, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Francesco Hayez, Auguste Rodin and others. By the 1960s, kissing also had many cinematic associations. In 1896, one of the first movies to be screened publicly was a 47-second long film called ‘The Kiss.’  The title was used again by two short films in 1914 and 1958, and was used again in 1929 for a feature-length drama starring Greta Garbo. The latter is a work that Warhol acknowledges as a direct influence.

Andy Warhol’s film ‘The Kiss’ is a string of short sequences shot over a period of about one year, in which different couples kiss for around 3 minutes each.  The 54-minute version is one of a series of bodily studies that Warhol created in the early 1960s when he had first begun to produce film. It is a companion piece to ‘Eat’, ‘Sleep’ and ‘Blow Job’ amongst others.  Unlike the other films focusing on bodily actions, this is the only one separated into short scenes.  All of the films force the viewer to consider these acts for an extended period of time and create a feeling of discomfort.

The act of filming two participants kissing clearly obsessed Warhol.  The ‘kissers’ must have had trust and admiration in him to allow him access to these private moments.  Maybe they are thinking, “is this how I get my 15 minutes of fame?”  Or perhaps there is something darker at work here and he is exerting a controlling influence.  Watching scene after scene, the viewer starts to reduce the couples to objects.  They begin to seem like kissing machines programmed by the artist.  There is something melancholic about watching these potentially intimate moments filtered through a technological process.

The first couple we see are slightly tentative; he wears black spectacle frames and a black mustache  her bright-white chin bobs up and down.  The studio light bleaches out the detail and there is no sound.  The next couple are more urgent, more passionate, his fingers embrace her face.  Then there are two men who don’t seem the slightest bit aware that there is a camera in the room focusing on them.  Eyes blink open and shut, lips move, mouths envelope chins, tongues and fingers explore cheeks and hair. One couple have their faces so tightly pressed together they could be a stone Brancusi sculpture.  After them a black man leans over to sensually kiss his white female partner.  And so it goes on and on..

To better understand the film, it is useful to imagine it in its 1963 context. By this time Andy Warhol’s factory was in full production mode.  A short time later, in 1965, Warhol stated that he would give up painting all together (to concentrate on film production) and remove ‘the artist’s hand’ from the creation of his artworks. Film production equipment was starting to become portable and affordable in this period, allowing the development of video art and conceptual film. ‘The Kiss’ was shown in its short sequence form at weekly film screenings attended by artists and other unconventional types. It is unlikely that Warhol deliberately produced the film to shock this audience, although his approach was radically different to any films that they would have seen before.

Warhol’s film encourages the popular myth that the 1960s was a ‘sexual revolution,’ characterised by casual relationships and an atmosphere of acceptance and ‘anything goes’.  However, the reality was quite different for most people who were still living very traditional lives based on a patriarchal system.  Institutional homophobia in the USA meant that until 1965 if teachers in public schools were discovered to be gay they could be removed from their posts.  It is unlikely that Warhol included gay couples and a mixed race couple to make a statement about inclusion, but he could be taking a sideways look at the idea of sexual freedom at that time.

In the same year as he produced the film ‘The Kiss’, Warhol produced a screen-print of the same title. It borrows a scene from the 1931 Hollywood film ‘Dracula’ directed by Bella Lugosi, in which a vampire is about to bite a woman’s neck.  This is further proof of the way the artist was thinking about a convergence of fine art and cinema; and suggests he wants us to be aware that kissing can have a dark and negative aspect.  Films in their more conventional sense have connotations of celebrity, fame and mass distribution: many of the features that have come to define Warhol’s art and life.  Interestingly, many modern viewers of Warhol’s film ‘The Kiss’ will see it on YouTube or another video-sharing website, rather than in a cinema or gallery; a format I suspect the artist would approve of.

In 1896, a reviewer said of the film ‘The Kiss’ directed by William Heise: “…the spectacle… was beastly enough…but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.” There is something disgusting about Warhol’s 1963 film, even for an audience in 2013 who will be familiar with cinema kisses, if not conceptual video art.  Usually a kiss in a film is the final scene, suggesting that the story continues but leaving the next chapter of the couple’s lives to the imagination.  Here the ending plays again and again.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai April issue

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