Writer: Grace Noh
1909 – a man and a woman are captured on a thin sheet of paper, the man’s arms and knees gently pressing the woman’s thighs and feet and her hair softly falling on the male figure’s head. The couple is in a harmonious union and their closed eyes gesture the exchange of affection. Lovers by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele (1890 – 1918) is seemingly a simple drawing. There is no single object depicted, not even a chair for the seated female figure, other than the two floating bodies gently touching each other. The figures are also unclothed. Their naked forms have no particular moment in history, unable to discern what period of time they belong to and where they are from. There is a sense of timeless belongingness and togetherness in what may at first appear to be a simple drawing. A few strokes of lines and their bodily forms adequately reveal the depiction of lovers. What the artist arouses in his work is the complex understanding of, what may be perceived as, romantic love.
Art is subjective and so too are the reactions. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.” It is natural to feel connected to something that are familiar with or have been experienced in one’s life. Schiele’s embrace is an intimate one filled with tenderness and sensuality. The touch and scent of one’s beloved are different from one another, but having the remembrance of such sensation is universal.
The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944) has also experimented with the motif of a couple kissing in a series of paintings and woodcuts. In The Kiss (1897), a couple is situated in a room where the viewer does not see much of the interior. They are monumentally placed in the center of the painting, suggesting that the focus is the embracing couple. Yet, the figures are simplified, appearing as if they are merged together as one in a featureless face. While the figures are clothed unlike the Schiele’s couple, the shadowy outlines of the figures in abstract form provide a place of timelessness.
I wish it could be like this always, if only I can stop the time.
Almost as if the viewer can hear the whispers of the couple, the room is filled with quietude and intimacy. In contrast to the seemingly frozen space and time inside, the glimpse of the outside through the windows appears to be vibrant and lively. Is the world moving without the couple? Are they keeping themselves in their own dreamy world where reality no longer matters? Rather than full of warmth and empathy, there is a sense of melancholy with the ambiguous and unstable forms in Munch’s figures. What first appears to be an uncomplicated painting, in fact, projects the artist’s emotional state and understanding of lovers. What is seen in The Kiss may be the depiction of the subjective reality of the lovers, not wanting to be disturbed.
To hug and to embrace, the individuals need to accept each other. There is the physical warmth and touch of bodies. What happens when these elements are absent? Lovers (1994), a room-sized multimedia installation by Japanese artist Teiji Furuhashi (1960 – 1995), may be completely the opposite of the former lovers. Life-sized images of figures are projected onto the walls of a dark room from computer-controlled video and slide projectors. Along the wall surface, the figures run and pause in a gesture of embrace. The artist described his expression of lovers as “diving into the ocean of the new human relationships with courage.” They are projected to overlap yet they are beyond reach, arms cradling empty air. Their bodies never make contact or perceive the presence of others. There is no physical closeness or romance in Furuhashi’s lovers. The nude forms of figures belong to no particular moment in history. Nevertheless, unlike Schiele’s timeless embracing couple, Furuhashi’s figures are rather lost in time. As if caught in an endless cycle of the past, the movements of figures are like memories repeating over and over again. They are, at the end, mere shadows that eventually disappear without a sound. What remains is a dark empty room of silence.
It may be said that reality is consists of both subjective and objective perspectives of the individuals – subjective for the unique experiences every person goes through and objective for existing in the physical world that is shared by humanity and beyond. One is not more real than the other. Both coexist in our reality. What the individuals experience in life and what they experience in art are the combinations of these subjective and objective perspectives. At the end, it is up to the viewer to be impacted or not. Yet, similar to babies hugging their mothers for warmth and comfort, there is a universality that endlessly intrigues and provokes artists in the depiction of lovers.