Love as a physical expression

 Love is a very complex emotion. It has existed since the beginning of time, yet very little is understood about it. While people often mask their intentions with words in the name of love, it is the physical expression of that emotion which always bares the truth. Feelings such as passion, infatuation, and lust can all be rooted back to love, but are not tangible. People who try to define physical love usually identify it as a sexual or romantic act, but even these are not enough. Artists who represent love in their work rely on the visible movement in the imagery. Whether in an Impressionist painting from the 19th Century or on a Greek vase from the late 5th Century BCE, the images represent a story. But since they cannot tell us what love feels like, artists use the actions of their subjects to convey the emotion. This is when body language becomes the most important characteristic of a piece. The works in this gallery illustrate a gradual complexity on how the physical expression of love is the most clear and true form of “actions speaking louder than words”. 

Lancelot, a knight, and Guinevere, King Arthur's wife, demonstrate forbidden love as characters Paolo and Francesca. In a great love story of European literature, Paolo and Francesca suppress their love within a room and share a passionate kiss. Artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti uses vibrant colors to illustrate the glow of the characters as if light is glistening through stained glass. As the painting displays the hindered desire for one another, Francesca reaches and delicately grasps Paolo’s hand. Her body language cries lust. As they hide their affair within the room they risk their secret's exposure in front of the window. With the watercolor the artist stages an enchanted mood with a blur throughout the painting. Still we capture the passion through Francesca's facial expression of desire for Paolo.
Saint Peter in Tears serves as a portal to its viewers. In his oil painting, Spanish artist El Greco's dramatic expressive style uses high contrast light and clouds giving a sense of stormy darkness. He is expressing the dramatic opening of the heavens in the background as the saint displays obvious emotion of his faith. Looking upon the heavens and and the angel, Saint Peter is mesmerized and brought to tears. He holds the keys to heaven with his hands held closely together in a state of prayer. In this idealized painting El Greco is using Saint Peters expression of love to capture the audience, and illustrates that devotion and faith can be answered to loyal followers.
Mary Cassatt is an excellent example of the demonstration of pure love between Mother and Child. As an American Impressionist many of her works represent the physical expression of a mother embracing a child. In this particular piece they are enclosed within a single form to emphasize the bond between them. The child sucking on his finger also reveals his innocence and protection as the mother wraps her arms tightly around her son. Cassatt also expresses the close nature and love through maternal sacrifice by having the mothers face directed away from the viewer.
While the physical act of fighting is commonly associated with anger or aggression, Thomas Rowlandson’s Settling a Lover’s Quarrel directly contradicts this stereotype. As a caricaturist Rowlandson uses irony to best express a point. In this late 18th Century drawing we see two men about to engage in fisticuffs while a woman waits on the sidelines to await the victor. Her joyous expression is odd as she revels in the brutality about to ensue. The two men are expressing their love physically for the woman by demonstrating their strength and desire to win her affection.
This manuscript illustration from Medieval France of tempera and gold leaf on parchment depicts two images. The image on the left shows a lover surrounded by allegorical figures who participate in a dance, while the image on the right depicts the God of Love aiming at an individual with his bow and arrow. In both scenes the figures are painted in grisaille and illustrate what the text reads below: “The God of Love immediately from afar began to follow me, bow in hand. Now God protect me from a mortal wound if he goes so far as to shoot me." Upon being shot, the individual wakes and sees love for the first time. Here, the physical expression of love is portrayed in the joyous dancing where love can be seen as unpredictable, especially for those afraid of it.
This Greek cup from the Early Classical Period depicts a 'symposium' which is defined as a social gathering at which men ate, drank, played games, were entertained with music and dance, and had sex with female prostitutes, mistresses, or male youths. This event was a fundamental part of Athenian aristocratic society. The image on the cup explicitly depicts a sexual encounter between a young man and a woman who is probably a “hetaera”, or prostitute. Vases and drinking cups that were used at the symposium would often depict erotic scenes such as this one. In this particular piece, love as a physical expression can be seen in the sexual act of sensual lust and the ravenous desire which is expressed in the way the young man’s hand acquisitively wraps the body of the prostitute.
Hugo Steiner-Prag’s lithograph of a man kneeling before a woman of his affection clearly shows love on its knees. They are both next to a canopy bed which alludes to the possible further demonstration of this love if the woman agrees and accepts this chivalric gesture of affection. Metaphorically, love’s physical state is that of kneeling or even begging. In other words, love is more than words. It can take a physical form. We see this in both characters of the illustration as Steiner-Prag shows the man on his knees declaring his love. This physical expression has become customary throughout many cultures to this day as an act of marital proposal. The woman also seems to be reciprocating this sentiment as she leans in to accept the man’s embrace demonstrated by his arms wrapping around her waist.
Satire Of Romantic Suicide was painted by the short lived artist and illustrator Leonardo Alenza in 1839. He was a follower of Goya and typically painted the lower class in the Romantic Era. Although love is seldom regarded in a satirical light, Alenza has managed to associate it by painting a very gloomy scene of a woman hanging from a tree with a dead man lying at her feet. It is an enigma though since it is not clear whether the girl hung herself after the man killed himself or vice versa. However, Alenza turns this love scene into a satirical piece by showing another man perched on a rock who is ready to commit suicide for that same woman. In this piece, love as a physical expression is depicted in different acts of suicide. Love is worth dying for even if someone already beat you to the punch.
In this modern piece of acrylic on canvas, Korean painter Chang Hong Ahn shows us love is not a joyous emotion, but a dark execution. This clutching couple in the middle of the “blood red” landscape immediately signifies a passion between the two. The viewer doesn't know what brought them to this moment, but it is evident something went wrong. The duality in both the man and the woman is represented by only lighting, if not seeing, half of each face which also hold stoic expressions. But even more deceitful are the knives they wield. The man has lifted his knife so far off the canvas that the inevitable plunge is almost palpable. Whether the woman had a change of heart or didn't act quick enough one thing is certain: love is treacherous.
These pages from the Qur'an are physical expressions of love. These are Islamic pages from the 9th or 10th Century. While the rest of the pieces in this gallery use images to recreate an emotion, it is here that we see the final product of black ink and gold rosettes in kufic script on vellum. The pages from the central religious text of Islam can be attributed to religious piety or fidelity, but like every other piece in this gallery, the artist (who we don't know) had a love for the craft. Those who cannot read the text still see the ornate design, attention to detail, and the treatment of respect for the language. The viewer sees the love expressed by the artist.
Credits: All media
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