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On Kisses And Edvard Munch
As a kid, a small kiss in a film would axe its family viewing potential. As an adult, its transgressive, erotic, desirous, agitated, and excitable nature holds more meaning than most other things.
It was the summer of 2017 that I saw Edvard Munch’s painting, The Kiss. A few months earlier I had taken a trip with a friend to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). They had a Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit. I hadn’t heard of Diebenkorn, and didn’t care much for Matisse, but the brochure online was so charged with beauty, I had to see it — maybe it was the various shades of blue, or the ornate flower patterns.
I remember viewing the exhibit in a hurry, and wanted to return, weeks later, for another leisurely gaze at a blood-red Matisse. I used a friend’s SFMOMA membership to get in, and straight-up flocked to the floor by muscle memory, but realized that this was a moving exhibit and had left the SFMOMA weeks before. Disappointed, I walked into another exhibit they had on, that of Munch. I don’t remember much, ambling about, till I came across The Kiss. It was stunning, and I was stunned.
Desire is so hard to express in words or images, because it is so complexly felt, every possible crystallization of it feels inadequate. I mean think of the euphoria, desperation, confusion, anxiety and hormonal immediacy of the first time or really any time you kissed someone — how can anyone put words or images to that?
Sharon Old, a poet, captured that feeling of melancholy and longing in her poem This Hour. Even though it feels like it is about a very specific encounter, I read in it something universal, the aftertaste of desire, the underwhelming life we return to, trying to find in it moments that might materialize into literature, and the desire for voyeurism that exists in the act of kissing — how do we look?
You could never really say what it is like,
this hour of drinking wine together
on a hot summer night, in the living room
with the windows open, in our underwear, a
few distant tower rooms looking
down into our window, my nylon bra
gleaming faintly in the heat, my bikini
panties with tiny pale-gold
gibbon monkeys on them
Even if we wanted to
we could not describe it,
the end of the second glass when I begin to
weep and you start to get sleepy—I love to
drink and weep with you and end up
sobbing to a sleeping man, your
long body filling the couch and
draped slightly over the ends, the
untrained soft singing of your snore, it cannot be given.
Yes we know we will make love but we’re
not getting ready to make love
nor are we getting over making love,
love is simply our element, it is the
humid summer night, we are in it.
I must confess I have been fixating on this topic since my sexless limbo sort-of hit a maelstrom last week when I saw this beautiful Canadian film Matthias and Maxime, on two guy friends who, for a film project, kiss, and this kiss upends their life as they know it. They both realize a new kind of desire, a new dimension to it they had never considered. Towards the end there is, possibly, one of the most erotic moments I have seen, when they finally kiss, owning up to that desire head-on. They are drunk, in a store-room of sorts with transparent tarpaulin fluttering to hide the holes in the wall and keep wild rains outside. My friend described it as, “that kiss [which] lives in my mind rent free”.
And that’s exactly why Munch is so brilliant in being able to depict this moment of desire. He is known for his restless, careless strokes, but also how careless he was with paintings, he would leave them in the snow, up in trees, walk over them, it was the act of producing art that was more important than the art itself. And in the immediacy of producing an artwork of a kiss, he replicated, oddly, the immediacy of the act of kissing, when you just throw caution and coherence to the wind and succ-umb.
(I am reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, with diligent discipline these days! It’s not as hard as I thought or imagined. The first 126 are meant to be addressed to a man, a friend, perhaps more. The first few sonnets are laments, asking his male friend why he doesn’t just… procreate, have a child who is a reflection, a version of his beauty, intellect, and humour. In the fifth sonnet, he likens this to summer’s flowers being distilled into perfume, that when captured inside a glass bottle, can be smelt even in frigid winters. That is exactly what writing, and especially writing about desire is, and specifically the hormonal agitations and emotional cartwheeling of a kiss. Smelling summer perfume in winter is the art; the summer flowers, and hot heat was the experience that needs art to capture its fleetingness for posterity.)
I mean, of course I am reading into a painting that you could have a very different reaction to. But every time I look at this painting, I am struck, I want to be at once, the man, sometimes the woman, and sometimes the voyeur staring at two people who just become, under Munch’s melting strokes, one. Another brilliant painting/frieze is that of a kiss by Gustav Klimt (not his other famous painting, titled The Kiss). I think here, it is the peaceful angels singing over the couple kissing that really gets me — you know, that sense of quietude. The kiss is no longer agitated, it’s like sitting in a pew, listening to a church choir in a sunny, golden afternoon.
Karl Ove Knaussgaard, who wrote a brilliant book on Munch, specifically, and art, more generally, had said, “A painting is nothing in itself… I mean, it’s just some colours. And of course it has to be released and it has to be part of someone else’s life somehow, and that is where it is living… It’s about communication, it’s for us.”
It is so easy for me to be struck by a kiss perhaps because of how striking it is as an act, but also perhaps how it was forcibly exorcised from my life as a child, that even peeks of it, felt like I was in pornographic heaven. As a child even a small act of kissing would axe that film’s family viewing, and thus film viewing potential. (This was, of coruse, before every family member had a laptop to watch whatever they wanted. It was the time of communal television, and family visits to the theater, some chutter-pattar food before, and a sumptuous dinner after.)
I was damn nervous forcing my family to watch Bachna Ae Haseeno with me. (But I had to watch it, the Ranbir Kapoor fan that I was) The trailer showed the potential for three (!) kisses Kapoor shared with three (!) different women. At the interval point, I sighed in relief, two of these three potential scenes didn’t end up as kisses (I would find out years later that they were kisses, but the UAE censor board chopped those kisses because they were with women the main lead would not end up with, and so were deemed unnecessary). Years later when we would do to the theaters to see 2 States, a film which had a much publicized kiss, with cousins, we jokingly told our aunt that when the scene comes up, we will place a barrier of dupatta, so the youngest cousin won’t bare witness to young people doing what young people crave to do. There is a palpable unease with such moments, because it’s desire but it’s also saliva.
The small peck on the lips between husband-wife in Baby’s Day Out was a culture shock, it was so … casual, like eating a fruit. Could a kiss also be a sign of routine, does it not always require a build-up and a build-down? That felt odd to the virginal wide-eyed teen-aged grump that I was. (I am so glad I used to watch movies as a kid, and later read books, because right now even if I am unable to know exactly who I was back then, I am able to clearly remember my reactions to films I had watched then, and it helps in constructing an image of myself.)
I don’t think in Indian cinema we have come to the point of normalized casual kissing. It’s cultural perhaps. It’s still a charged moment. I still feel uncomfortable watching a film with my parents if the lead actors so much as share a sweet kiss.
When I spoke to Sachin Mohite for a piece on his soft-porn series Gandii Baat he placed great emphasis on the act, because in the absence of showing penetration, this is where he could be erotic. (So many friends have told me, and I don’t entirely disagree, that in pornography sometimes it is the kiss that is more titillating than the act of sex itself) When he told me how he shoots such scenes I couldn’t stop laughing.
When the scene rolls, he gives a running commentary from behind the camera, telling them exactly what to do. “Abhi thoda neeche, upper lip pe jaao, kiss, keep kissing,” he said.
If you have seen the episodes, you now know why they look the way they do. Here he has completely cleaved any possibility of desire as anything more than a hormonal reaction. Which is fine, I guess. A kiss is a kiss is a kiss. You seek from it what you feel like in that moment.
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