4.14 / Review

Hungry Kisses: Tongues in Picasso

By Jarrett Earnest April 21, 2013

Art Practical is pleased to republish this article by Jarrett Earnest, which was commissioned for the Spring 2013 issue of the Miami Rail and can be found here.


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—and 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, we encounter Picasso the Ravenous and watch him consume the history of art chronologically as we walk 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.

Pablo Picasso. The Kiss (Le baiser), Mas Notre-Dame-de-Vie, Mougins, 1969; oil on canvas; approx. 38 x 51.25 in. Private Collection. Courtesy of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: David Heald.
Pablo Picasso. The Kiss (Le baiser), February 22, 1930, 1930; charcoal and oil on wood panel; approx. 18 x 25 in. Collection of Jerome L. and Ellen Stern. Courtesy of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kristopher McKay

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.

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, made by the artist’s violent incisions 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 rotunda, the exhibition ends with a work from 1969, painted when Picasso was eighty-eight years old. Unlike the cold, hard marks of The Kiss from nearly forty years earlier, 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 a young female—and mushed into complementing contours with no negative space. Most interesting are the few inches where the mouths meet, where quick, thick brushstrokes evoke the action of tongues moving between them, although it is completely unclear which stroke and 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 finding and following 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.


Picasso Black and White was on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York, from October 5, 2012 to January 23, 2013.

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