The painting depicts a couple kissing behind a market stall with fruit and vegetables. A tall man in an unbuttoned shirt embraces a woman wearing a bottle-green dress. Their faces, directed at each other in a kiss, are not visible. Both characters emanate a certain strength. The gesture looks very dynamic, which is affirmed by their clenched hands and the woman's bent, strained neck.
The vegetables and fruit laying on the counter only seemingly resemble food articles meant for sale. If we were to take a closer look – and ignore the scene's market context – it becomes clear that what we actually see is an elaborately composed still life. The bright cloth thrown on the table is arranged into decorative plaits. Instead of piles of products of the same type, we see fruit and vegetables in various colours placed in a deliberate manner. The light-green cabbage contrasts with the dark purple one. Lemons, oranges, apples, and onions become yellow, orange and red spheres thrown onto the drapery-covered table. Their peels shine brightly, as does the surface of the metal dishes next to them. The material covering the market stand turns out to be a canopy hung above the pair of lovers, encasing the composition's upper half with a graceful bow.
Thus, the seemingly ordinary genre scene becomes a glorification of vitality, life and nature's richness. The kissing pair are not specific characters – we cannot see their faces after all – but a joyful triumph of youth and love. The market attributes transform into symbols of abundance and life-giving nature. In a 1928 article for Contemporary Woman magazine (which has The Kiss as its cover), Nela Samotyhowa writes:
The artist's attention is not psychological, it does not focus only on studying the face; rather, it encompasses the motion of the human figure. In The Kiss, the richness of life emanates both from the maturity and tenderness of the fruits and from the gesture of the two faceless characters.
Łuczyńska-Szymanowska was known first and foremost as an esteemed Warsaw-based portraitist, popular among the crème de la crème of interwar Polish society. Over her many years of artistic activity, she painted not only portraits but also nudes, intimate genre scenes, and still lifes. Typically, she used big canvases for her works (100 x 140 cm). In the bottom-right corner of her paintings, both of her signatures can be found. Although she never dated her paintings, we know that The Kiss was created around 1926. It was shown in that year's spring at the Warsaw Art Club and – two years later – during the artist's solo exhibition at the Zachęta Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. It was among the best – and most valued – works shown by the artist. In a Zachęta review published in The Illustrated Weekly in 1928, Wacław Husarski wrote:
Her concept of painting is based on the old masters – on baroque art, to be more precise. From it, she draws her wide and energetic texture, her warm museum tone and her decorative composition based on fluid circular and spiral lines. By referring to forms which were passed onto us in the art of the 17th century, she does not reject the achievements of the so-called post-impressionist era and skilfully and discreetly uses contour drawing and introduces colour combinations in which one can notice some reflections of Cézanne’s art.
Basically all of the critic's remarks could be applied to The Kiss. The fluidity of lines, contour drawing, and the composition's decorativeness are clearly visible in the example of the fruits and vegetables seen in the foreground. They bring similar paintings by Paul Cézanne to mind. The French artist often went back to painting still lifes and composed it in a similar manner – on a white material, placed on a table, lay primarily yellow and orange fruits: lemons, oranges, pears, peaches, and apples.
For post-impressionist artists, still life studies were connected to searching for new ways of imagining, analysing the appearance of items and confronting their form. Baroque compositions, in turn, were more focused on the symbolism of passing, death and the impermanence of earthly goods. Łuczyńska-Szymanowska seems to draw from both sources. On one hand, her painting is not devoid of the symbolic layer (although it is rather connected to vitalising nature and not transience), and on the other – it falls within the avant-garde aesthetics. This ‘angular lumpiness’ (a term coined by Alicja Okońska) and the smooth, almost polished surfaces of the painted objects make it possible to compare The Kiss with paintings by Tamara de Łempicka, who combined classic forms with cubist influences in a spectacular manner.
Curiously enough, Joanna Sosnowska interprets The Kiss as a work in which Łuczyńska-Szymanowska sub-consciously consolidated the patriarchal arrangement between the characters. Pursuant to this idea, the bigger, stronger male, tightening his fist on the female's shoulder, clearly dominates her. Thus, the titular kiss is reduced to a physical act dictated by the laws of nature – which is further emphasised by the fruits and vegetables in the foreground.
During the interwar period, Łuczyńska-Szymanowska's art was usually connected to the artist's personality traits – she was a woman full of energy, joyful and self-confident. Nela Samotyhowa wrote of the painter:
She falls into the category of artists who are impetuous, for whom art is the best form of expression and the best way to vent the accumulated energy. ‘If one can't vent one's energy through life – one does it through art’, she says with a smile when I confess that I sense great directness and impulse from her works.
Such traits were looked for in The Kiss – a composition brimming with life, filled with passion and youth. As we can read in the 1928 issue of the Świat magazine:
Madame Łuczyńska-Szymanowska's painting is poetry-like. One has to only look into the compositions, such as The Kiss […], to become an admirer of this earnest art of high aspirations.
Alicja Okońska, Malarki polskie, Warsaw 1976.
Wacław Husarski, Z Zachęty, „Tygodnik Ilustrowany” issue 15 (14 April 1928), p. 297.
Nela Samotyhowa, Irena Łuczyńska-Szymanowska, „Kobieta Współczesna” issue 19 (6 May 1928), p. 15-16.
Joanna Sosnowska, Poza kanonem. Sztuka polskich artystek 1880-1939, Warsaw 2003.
T., Sylwety artystyczne: art. mal. Irena Łuczyńska-Szymanowska, „Świat” issue 16 (21 April 1928), p. 4-5.
Written by Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka, Nov 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Aug 2018