The Art & Science of Kissing

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry's Refuges album

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry’s Refuges album

“A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” ― Ingrid Bergman

The first kiss, like a job interview, can be a thoroughly nerve-racking experience. This curious way of passing approx. 80 million bacteria from our lips to someone else’s generates so many anxieties and uncertainties that the internet is flooded with articles dedicated to dispelling fears surrounding it. A blogger, calling himself Dr Nerdlove, writes that  “Outside of “How do I meet girls?”, “when should you kiss her” is easily the most common dating question I get.” But when you’re in a relationship, kissing quickly becomes one of the elements of your everyday physical connection with your partner. Enjoyable, for sure, but no longer as weird, exciting and terrifying as it was before we crossed that physical barrier with someone. Having recently experienced the excitement of a first kiss with a new romantic partner (who is sadly no longer my partner), I had a chance to take a fresh look at kissing, and examine the phenomenon through the eyes of an alien visitor to our planet Earth. A visitor who, as Alain de Botton points out in a great essay on his Book of Life blog, would most likely have a hard time understanding it:

Mutual desire is normally signalled by a pretty weird act; two organs otherwise used for eating and speaking are rubbed and pressed against one another with increasing force, accompanied by the secretion of saliva. A tongue normally precisely manipulated to articulate vowel sounds, or to push mashed potato or broccoli to the rear of the palate now moves forward to meet its counterpart, whose tip it might touch in repeated staccato movements. One would have to carefully explain to an alien visitor from Kepler 9b what is going on.

Why do we kiss? From the biological point of view, the activity stems from our need to identify whether someone might be a good mate for us or not. Contrary to animals, which can detect smell at a distance, our sense of smell is exceptionally poor, so for us kissing is a “culturally acceptable way to get close enough to another person to detect their pheromones.” But not all humans adhere to these methods of analysing chemicals. A recent study which examined 168 cultures from around the world, discovered that as little as 46% of them practice the romantic–sexual kiss, and its frequency is correlated to the society’s relative social complexity. According to anthropologists from the University of Nevada, certain hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Brazilian Mehinaku tribe, consider kissing deeply revolting, while the Oceanic inhabitants pass open mouths over each other, without having actual contact. In order to learn more about each other, they might, instead of kissing, smell their partner’s face, which they are likely to consider more sexual. The Pacific Islanders and The Maori of New Zealand also practice “Eskimo kisses”, i.e. rubbing noses together. And some cultures don’t kiss at all—like Somalis, the Lepcha of Sikkim or the Sirono of Bolivia.

Max Ernst, 'The Kiss' (1927)

Max Ernst, ‘The Kiss’ (1927)

In many countries, especially Muslim ones, kissing in public is considered offensive and often illegal. It is ironic that India, a country where the Kama Sutra originated, is so opposed to kissing and Indian conservatives go as far as charging couples kissing in secluded seaside spots with obscene behaviour, and attacking shops which sell Valentine’s Day cards, as Emily Wax reports for The Washington Post. In the ancient Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts dating back to 3,500 years ago, kissing was described as “inhaling each other’s soul”, while now it is perceived as a symbol of Western invasion, posing a threat to Indian values. But half of the world does kiss. And we do it for several reasons. Aside of being a way of detecting pheromones, kissing lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. According to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, kissing can access any one of three primary brain systems used for mating and reproduction: the sex drive, romantic love and long-term attachment. Also, as Alain de Botton points out, it has other important psychological merits: showing acceptance and willingness to take a risk with someone.

The huge meaning of kissing is something we’ve built up by social agreement and its fundamental definition is: I accept you – accept you so much that I will take a big risk with you. (…) Ordinarily it would be utterly nauseating to have a stranger poke their tongue into your face; the idea of their saliva lubricating your lips is horrendous. So to allow someone to do these things signals a huge level of acceptance.

Reinier Lucassen 'De Kus'

Reinier Lucassen ‘De Kus’

There are also other merits. A 10-year study conducted in Germany in the 1980s found that men who kiss their wives before leaving for work live approx. 5 years longer, earn 20-30% more and get into fewer car accidents than married men who don’t. Aside of still being a perplexing phenomenon (why, for example, kissing increases the level of oxytocin in men, but decreases it in women?!) and a subject of continuous study, kissing has also been a subject of numerous paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and all sorts of art works. I have gathered a number of kissing-depicting images, some by my favourite artists, and some by artists I have only just discovered, which I have scattered around this post. I do not intend to analyse them, for I believe they should be left to interpretation and contemplation by a reader. If I can say one thing, it would be that what makes these works so strong is their ability to escape the clichéd, the kitsch and the obvious. Having researched imagery for this post, I have seen an infinite number of realistic depictions of kissing, which were devoid of any sort of magic, atmosphere and emotion. The paintings I’m showing here are very different.

Obviously, kissing is not only depicted in masterfully executed oil paintings, but it seems to appear absolutely everywhere, from telecom ads, such as Vodafone’s The Kiss, to cigarette ads (see the infamous Don’t Be a Maybe campaign by Marlboro), to giant Benetton billboards, presenting world leaders in passionate lip-locks with their enemies. “What’s more personal than a kiss?”, asks Mark Glaser (Marketing at Google) when explaining the inspiration behind the Mulberry Kisses campaign, aimed at bringing the romantic view of the brand into the internet. So kissing is everywhere and yet we don’t seem to tire of it. An example of just how much excitement kissing can evoke, is First Kiss, a 2014 video directed by   Tatia Pilieva, which had 3 times more traffic than President Obama’s appearance on the popular online comedy show, Between Two Ferns, posted online the same day. The low-budget video was commissioned by fashion label Wren to showcase their clothing line’s fall collection for Style.com’s Video Fashion Week. It featured several couples, straight and gay, kissing in front of the camera, and proved an instant hit on the internet—it was viewed about 42 million times on YouTube. John Koblin in his article for the New York Times quotes Pilieva, who attributes the popularity to the sincerity of the video: “They shed all these layers in front of our eyes and in front of the cameras and that sweetness and kindness resonated with people.”

Another example of is Kiss Me Now, Meet Me Later, a social experiment, in which Toronto-based cinematographer Jordan Oram asked 8 blindfolded strangers to kiss each other after a brief introduction. Unlike similar videos, which focus on merely presenting the act of kissing, Oram’s film is trying to make us ask some questions. The film-maker said: “there had been nothing that really showed the reason why people were kissing… The reason behind the kiss: what if you meet the person you fell in love with from the first kiss? What if it was like your first kiss? What if you met someone, you kissed them, and then you introduced yourself? And then you built chemistry from that.”

Kissing can be truly magical. And it’s worth waiting for the right person to come along to share the magic with.

Marc Chagall, 'Birthday' (1915)

Marc Chagall, ‘The Birthday’ (1915)

Departing from a safe zone

I am currently preparing for a joint exhibition with Oxford-based painter Andris Wood at the Gasoline Rooms gallery in March 2014. The body of work I am preparing moves me away from previous painting ventures into a more experimental territory where fine arts meets the graphic novel. This is exciting and terrifying at the same time, and the experience of pushing myself in a new direction inspired me to write down some of my thoughts on departing from a safe zone.

For my birthday this year, my boyfriend gave me a beautiful book called Little Big Books. Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books, published by Gestalten. It is a large, beautifully compiled book showcasing many established illustrators, some of which aren’t necessarily children’s books-oriented (despite the title). I spent a good few hours looking at the vast amount of artwork inside the book when I caught myself thinking that a lot of the styles are very similar. After a few read-throughs, there was only a small number of artists I was able to immediately distinguish. Two of them I knew (and fell in love with) long before I got the book: Lorenzo Mattotti and Einar Turkowski are both phenomenal artists with a very unique style. Despite not knowing a word in German, I love looking at amazing pencil drawings in Turkowski’s debut book, Es war finster und merkwürdig still (translation: “It was dark and eerily quiet”), which he submitted as his degree thesis at the University of Applied Sciences, Hamburg, in 1998. Turkowski limits himself to the pencil, “the boringly normal HB-hardness,” because he likes concentrating on one tool, and doing “everything possible with it, from the finest stroke to the darkest shadowing.” (You can read more about him at the Internationales Literaturfestival in Berlin website.)

Mattotti, on the other hand, is all about the colour (although he’s also an author of two great black and white comics: semi-autobiographical The Man at the Window and Chimera.) His unique picture novels such as Fires (on which he worked 6 years), Murmur, or Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde have very distinct palettes and resemble galleries of paintings, some of which could easily work outside of the book. Mattotti is someone who, having experimented with a few traditional comic stories, decided he wanted to tell different kinds of stories using a different style. This is one of the reasons I like his work so much. To be honest, I actually don’t read many comic books because I find a lot of them very similar and dull. What I look for in art is a very personal approach and interpretation, playing with the genre, crossing disciplines to create something new. And not just for the sake of it being different but for one’s own satisfaction with finding their own voice.

A few other names I fished out from that big red book are: Emmanuelle Houdart with her bold, disturbing images and defined colours; Kaatje Vermeire with her enchanting visual poetry and subtle lines; Alicia Baladan’s quirky and mysterious figures in fantastical landscapes and David Sala‘s decorative images with a hint of retro-nostalgia.

I was wondering what it was about these people that their work immediately spoke to me, while many other images, however nice to look at, I found so easily forgettable. I realized that there is a certain style in today’s world of illustration (both in the UK and Poland) that seems very popular and safe, hence a lot of artists pick it up. Images resembling a child’s drawings, figures and objects as cutouts or silhouettes, with very particular compositions of not-too-many objects on a page. I have seen so many images adhering to this style that even though I did find a lot of it charming initially, now it leaves me cold.

Two days ago I went to the Cockpit Arts open studios in Deptford and left with very similar feelings. While all the different artwork (ceramics, jewellery, textiles, illustrations) in studios spreading across three floors was pleasant to look at, there were only a few artists there who I thought were really offering something personal and different. Those were: Katharine Morling with her fantastic black-and-white sculptures of both ordinary objects and more imaginary characters and places; very quirky mugs and pots with body parts and Madonnas by Anja Lubach, striking biomorphic headdresses by Emma Yeo, and enchanting hand-embroidered illustrations of people in intimate everyday situations by Naomi Ryder.

Developing one’s own artistic language is not a quick and easy process, and it requires the ability to both challenge oneself and to stay immune to whatever trends are popular and catchy. Paradoxically, finding recipients for one’s work at an early stage, despite financial reward, might become an obstacle in the development of one’s career. The temptation to stay on the safe side and keep doing what the client seems to like most must be very strong, as well as the fear that one’s new artistic venture might not be met with applause. Therefore I really do admire artists who are able to resist that fear and keep working their way towards a very unique personal expression.