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Scottish National Gallery enjoys its first Kiss

If Auguste Rodin's monumental celebration of the power of sexual love, The Kiss, was a movie, its trailer would surely feature a voiceover by a deep-throated American male: "Coming to a gallery near you soon – the most erotic tale of doomed love ever captured in marble.

They were destined to be together. In life. And for all eternity."

The arrival on a year-long loan of Rodin's iconic sculpture in Pentelican marble is a coup for the National Galleries of Scotland. This world-famous sculpture, which is over 6ft high and weighs around the same as the average great white shark, will be on show from next Saturday in Edinburgh, just ahead of Valentine's Day.

Depicting two naked lovers entwined in a passionate embrace, the work reflects Rodin's idea of "liberating" the human figure from the stone, which in turn was a homage to his hero Michelangelo. It is one of three such works in existence, and arrives at the National Gallery of Scotland on loan from The Tate in London.

The two lovers depicted in the sculpture – completed in Rodin's studio in 1904 for an American collector living in England –are based on a real-life couple. Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini were contemporaries of Italian writer Dante, who featured them in his epic poem The Divine Comedy, written between 1308 and his death in 1321.

The story goes that Francesca was married to Paolo's brother, Giancotto, but fell in love with Paolo, who was also married. They were discovered in flagrante delicto by Giancotto, who killed them.

Dante's depiction of the doomed lovers' story has it that Francesca and Paulo's affair began when they read of Lancelot's first embrace with Guinevere. This is the moment Rodin has depicted. In his sculpture, the book can just be made out still clutched in Paolo's left hand. In Dante's Inferno, the pair are destined to wander eternally through hell.

Michael Clarke, Director of the Scottish National Gallery, says the arrival of The Kiss is fortuitous in that it coincides with the departure of Canova's The Three Graces, jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the V&A in London.

"The Three Graces is displayed by us and then the V&A on a seven-year rotation," he explains. "So it's goodbye for now to Canova and hello to The Kiss, which will be on display for a year in the main gallery in the same position. We have another version of the story of Francesca da Rimini in the gallery, although it is a much more chaste depiction by the Aberdeen-born painter, Sir William Dyce, who painted it in 1837."

Rodin's The Kiss was commissioned by American-born Edward Perry Warren, a collector of Greek marble sculpture who lived in Sussex. It was too large to fit inside his house, so Warren stored the sculpture in a stable block at his home and later at Lewes Town Hall. Because of its erotic nature, and the fact Rodin's work fell out of fashion, the sculpture was unloved for many years until it was bought by the Tate in 1953.

It is one of three versions carved in the studio by professional marble sculptors with finishing touches by Rodin himself. Of the remaining two, one is in Paris at the Musée Rodin, the other at the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. A fourth, produced after Rodin's death, is in the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia.

Rodin also made smaller versions in plaster, terracotta and bronze. Such was allure of The Kiss that hundreds of bronze copies were produced by the Barbedienne foundry in Paris. As a result, The Kiss is one of the most instantly recognised and best-loved works of art in the world. It will join three other works by Rodin at the National Gallery of Scotland and is sure to prove a huge draw in the next 12 months.

"Rodin was a wonderfully gifted sculptor – technically brilliant, with an astonishing ability to model the human form with sensuous realism," adds Clarke.

"The Kiss is rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest artistic evocations of desire ever created."

Forget Fifty Shades Of Grey, there are endless shades of meaning in this powerful work, and it's coming to a gallery near you soon.

Rodin's The Kiss, Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org) from February 2

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