—Georges Bataille, “Le Sacrifice du Gibbon” (1930)
In the history of representation, the iconography of kissing has changed very little, usually showing two faces directed toward each other in profile, in close proximity, or pressed together. This formula is an effective solution to the problem of showing a kiss, which has the built-in barriers of noses and the backs of heads. In kissing, the action is really on the inside—felt rather than seen—experienced only by the two engaged in it. One could even say then that kissing structurally resists visual representation, making the story of kissing in art particularly interesting. The unseen actor here is the tongue, which rarely makes appearances in art history, surely because of its visual awkwardness, nested as it is so securely in our mouths. Tongues are hard to see unless being stuck out, and occasions for sticking your tongue out are, at least historically, rarely the stuff of serious painting. As the organ of speech the tongue is made invisible—becoming our most elevated social instrument. When it is seen, it slips back into position as the most bestial, used for eating and sex. In most social settings a lot of effort is used to insulate our mouths, tongues specifically, from these vulgar associations.
Picasso is an artist who shows an inordinate number of tongues, and his handling of the “tongue-as-sign” embodies his particular genius. In the Picasso: Black and White exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (October 5, 2012–January 23, 2013) we encounter Picasso the Ravenous and watch him consume the history of art as we walk chronologically up the ramps. He takes styles inside of himself, from Ingres to Velázquez, chewing them up, extracting what is useful, and moving on before our eyes. The spiraling interior of the museum becomes a churning engine of consumption: a masticating mouth. For Picasso, tongues are signifiers of the most primal sensations. In “Guernica” (1937), for example, it is the jutting tongues that communicate the scene’s anguish with utmost clarity. One could even argue that they constitute a key to the painting’s emotional force: literally functioning as the punctum—a tongue like a spear. Included in the exhibition is “Mother with Dead Child II, Postscript to Guernica” (1937) which shows a tongue that waves like a pyramid out of a pit. After Cubism, Picasso worked with representation as a visual language unmoored from physical reality, and nowhere is this more clear than this mother’s tongue, which has nothing to do with an anatomical tongue per se (no one actually sticks their tongue straight out when screaming) but is instead pure symbol—becoming the visual equivalent of a scream: abject horror.