Marie-Berthe Aurenche was twenty-one and engaged to a lawyer when her brother Jean introduced her to the throbbing phantasmagoria of the Paris art scene. It was the height of les Années folles—Paris’s crazy years, when the Western art world spun frantically round the studios of Picasso, Modigliani, and Duchamp, and Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism defined and redefined what art could be. In the center of the storm, Marie met the dapper, worldly, artist and creative gravity-well Max Ernst. Ernst was 15 years her senior and had already lived a half-dozen lifetimes. He'd married and had a son, and abandoned them both. He'd traveled the world in a polyamorous ménage à trois with the French poet Paul Éluard and the famed muse Gala, and pushed surrealist art into new conceptual and technical directions through his invention of a uniquely gritty suite of techniques, frottage, graftage, and decalcomania.
Marie and Max connected immediately and passionately, disappearing into the city to avoid the young woman’s furious parents before emerging in 1927 for a hasty marriage and leaving Paris for the quiet suburb of Meudon. Marie became the dominant muse for Ernst’s work, which shifted from irony-tinged surrealism into the joyful eroticism at work in The Kiss.
One of the Surrealists’ defining preoccupations was harnessing chance to form the basis of artistic compositions, and Ernst put these techniques to incredible use. For The Kiss, the artist dropped string onto a prepared surface, then used a coordinate grid to painstakingly map the accidental curves and twists onto his canvas, where he interpreted the sweeping lines into subjects and forms. The result is a bright, sinuous tangle of hands, feet, limbs and simplified faces subsumed into a milieu where bodies are inseparable from another. Earth, sky, and where they meet—sex.
Got questions, comments or corrections about The Kiss? Join the conversation in our Discord, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member for exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts in the Obelisk Store.
Reed Enger, "The Kiss," in Obelisk Art History, Published October 10, 2017; last modified October 31, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/max-ernst/the-kiss/.