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Hungry Kisses: Tongues in Picasso

Jarrett Earnest

Pablo Picasso, The Kiss (Le baiser), Mas Notre-Dame-de-Vie, Mougins, 1969, Oil on canvas, 97.2 x 130.2 centimeters. Private Collection. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by David Heald.

…It was not on a mere carcass that the mouth of the Englishwoman crushed her most burning, her sweetest kisses, but on the nauseating JESUVE: the bizarre noise of kisses, prolonged on flesh, clattered across the disgusting noise of entrails.

—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.


Pablo Picasso, The Kiss (Le baiser), February 22, 1930, Charcoal and oil on wood panel, 47 x 64 centimeters. Collection of Jerome L. and Ellen Stern. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Kristopher McKay, courtesy of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

There are several kisses in the exhibition that show Picasso’s innovation and sensibility. “The Kiss, February 22, 1930” (1930) presents kissing-as-nightmare: all that is shown are two insect-skeleton faces, as though in X-ray, a drawing made by violently incising into a layer of grey paint. These are creatures trying to consume each other, showing their gouging tongues inside their mouths. At the very top of the Guggenheim, the exhibition ends with a kiss from 1969 painted when Picasso was 88 years old. Unlike the cold, hard marks of “The Kiss” from nearly forty years before, here the tones of gray oil paint are all desperate, gooey energy. Also unlike its counterpart, the two faces here are clearly divided by gender—an older male and young female—mushed into complementing contours with no negative space. Most interesting in the whole painting are the few inches where the mouths meet, where quick thick brushstrokes create the action of tongues moving between them, although it is completely unclear which stroke/tongue belongs to whom or what it’s actually doing. This late painting is an even more disturbing kiss than the one previously discussed, absent of any intimacy or equality, instead offering consummation as consumption. It is an animal kiss, where sex and death are inexorably entwined through fear and hunger. These kisses, and the use of tongues, are unique in the history of representation. Picasso’s dedication to following and finding a language for his own ceaseless consuming desires marks his art, for better or for worse, as among the most interesting and important there is.