When passion triumphs

In addition to arts and crafts from the Far East, works by Polish artists, French prints and other valuable objects, the collection of Feliks Jasieński – also known as Manggha – includes Gustav Vigeland’s sculpture which depicts a kissing couple.

A young man impulsively grabs his girlfriend to kiss her on the mouth. Judging by her gesture when she embraces her lover’s neck, she reciprocates his passion. They are young and passionate, and the candidness of their relationship determines the impact of the sculpture.

Gustav Vigeland, Kiss, 1897, property of the National Museum in Krakow
Gustav Vigeland, Kiss, 1897, property of the National Museum in Krakow

No one knows how this plaster cast found its way to the collection of the eccentric „Manggha”. Perhaps the collector purchased the sculpture from Stanisław Przybyszewski, who brought his favourite works of art when he moved into his Krakow flat with his wife – Dagny Juel. In the following difficult years, Przybyszewski was forced to sell some of them.

Przybyszewski, the biggest advocate of young Vigeland’s talent, devoted a lot of space to him in his poignant essays. Their basic concept – namely that the works of this sculptor communicate feelings stripped of all decorum – is an accurate characterization of Vigeland’s works from the last decade of the 19th century, which is when The Kiss was created.

The title listed in Feliks Jasieński’s inventory (the original title of the work is Mann sittende met kvinne i fanget or “a sitting man with a woman on his laps”) suggests that Vigeland’s work was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture. However, statuesque figures and a lyrical aura of the great Frenchman’s work significantly contrast with feisty informality of Vigeland’s depiction.

The theme of love between a man and a woman was a frequent theme in Vigeland’s sculptural work. The form of sculptures created in the last decade of the 19th century perfectly highlights their emotional intensity: the figures are boldly modelled, have slender “gothic” proportions, and their physical qualities are not subject to idealization. One of the first sculptures from the series is Two Youth from 1893, well known to readers of the Life magazine edited by Przybyszewski: a poster with its reproduction could be purchased in the editorial office. The most daring example is Coitus (1897-1898), brazenly depicting a sexual intercourse. This small sculpture, which was certainly not intended to be presented in exhibition halls, now belongs to the permanent gallery of the Vigeland Museum.

Gustav Vigeland developed his own variety of Symbolism, based on a naturalistic study of the human form. He was a keen observer, who translated his insights into profound psychological reflections. Vigeland and the most revolutionary artists of the turn of the century shared the ability to poignantly depict the pessimism of his era – even love is lined by Vigeland with grief and doubt. The artist understands love as the whole spectrum of emotional states so he does not try to embellish it, just as he does not beautify the depicted characters.

Unconstrained, at times even vehement compositions with sketchy moulding resulted in accusations of carelessness put forward by Vigeland’s contemporary critics (which is a clear parallel to the perception of Xawery Dunikowski’s early sculptures, which also shocked exhibition-goers accustomed to easy art). What young Vigeland valued most was expression unrepressed by rules. The figures he sculpted were not meant to please the viewers, but convey the truth about human feelings.

These features characterizing the art of young Gustav Vigeland are reflected in the sculpture which is now in the collection of the National Museum in Krakow. According to the classical principles of composition in works of art, it features disharmony. And that’s fine! Artificial poses of the young couple would deprive the work of its sensual aura, which radiate from the spontaneously conveyed details. After all, Vigeland is not striving for classical order, but for the expression of truth about us in the moment of ecstasy. He does not idealize it, knowing that when passion triumphs, there is no room left for control.

Vigeland’s sculpture is a tribute to the state of infatuation, and an affirmation of a feeling characterized by an enormous strength, which is what we wish you all on St. Valentine’s Day.

Agata Małodobry – art historian, works at the Department of Modern Polish Painting and Sculpture of the National Museum in Krakow, curator of an exhibition titled „On the Paths of the Soul. Gustav Vigeland and Polish Sculpture around 1900” (2010).

The Kiss sculpture can be viewed in our EUROPEUM branch, pl. Sikorskiego 6.


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