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The Kiss By Gustav Klimt: Great Art Explained

By the end of the 19th century Vienna, an uptight, 
stuffy and conservative city was changing.   A group of artists, architects, musicians and social 
scientists were experimenting in ways which would   transform their individual fields. On the one hand 
Vienna was the traditional city of academic art,   Johann Strauss and the Habsburg empire, but on 
the other, it was the home of radical artists   such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, who were 
shocking audiences with explorations of sexual themes. Architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos were 
challenging imperial design, while Gustav Mahler   was transforming the musical life of the city. 
And Sigmund Freud was about to change forever   the way we think about the human mind. 
Vienna was experiencing a new ‘golden age’.   It was a city at the forefront of modernity,
and it would shape the 20th century. In 1857 Emperor Franz Josef ordered the 
building of the Ringstrasse. It is a series   of tree-lined boulevards that circled the city. 
The Bourgeoisie of Vienna rushed to build huge   mansions on the Ringstrasse alongside new 
public buildings. These ostentatious palaces   needed to be decorated and Gustav Klimt and 
his brother were very successful mural painters. Gustav Klimt became one of the world’s most famous 
artists without the usual personality cult we expect. We know very little about him except that 
he never married but was a prodigious lover and   left behind 14 children by as many women. He lived 
with his mother his whole life and was terrified   of mental illness. Almost a classic case study for 
Sigmund Freud. And like Freud he placed sexuality   at the forefront of his work. Klimt didn’t go to 
a fine arts school, but rather an arts and crafts school.  A more practical education, where he learned 
skills and techniques. His lifetime goal was to   demolish the snobby distinction between fine art 
and craft. At the age of 20, Klimt and his younger   brother were creating allegorical murals for the 
new public buildings in Vienna. Their friezes were   conservative mythological images – in keeping with 
19th century academic painting. But it is in his   background as a decorative artist, that we find 
the roots of Klimt’s later more radical work.   When both his brother and father died suddenly, 
Klimt’s art would take a dramatic and darker turn.   He would still use allegory and symbolism, but he 
would transform it into a new language that was   more overtly sexual and for some more disturbing. 
He was commissioned to decorate the university of   Vienna. The paintings would cause a huge public 
scandal with their sexually provocative themes   and Klimt was accused of producing pornography. 
Women were advised to stay away from his work and   the paintings were rejected by the university. 
Klimt formed a radical new society called the   Vienna Secession with other young artists. Their 
aim was to bring art, craft, architecture and design   together – in one great movement. The secession 
broke away from the pompous historical painting   fashionable in the late 19th century, and gave 
contemporary art its first dedicated space. In a nation still very traditional this can be   seen as the formal beginning 
of modern art in Austria. Ironically, a painting that is seen as a romantic 
ideal by man, was painted by a man who was never   romantically involved and was afraid of intimacy. 
A man who had an obsession with sex, bedded most of   his models – as well as his subjects – but went 
home each night to the mother he adored and   two unmarried sisters. The painting is square –
at six foot by six foot, it is practically life-size,   making us connect to it on a human scale. 
It is self-contained and deceptively simple.   It shows Klimt as the consummate draftsman, 
an artist who drew every day from life models.   There are several things which make 
the kiss unique – the deliberate contrast   between the realistically rendered flesh and the 
two-dimensional abstract ornamentation, creates   an effect almost like photo montage. The bodies 
are painted with a cool contemporary sensuality.   They are encased like an ancient Egyptian 
mummy in cascades of gold and abstract patterns.  And everything appears to float in a golden 
cosmos – outside of time and space. The background   is Klimt’s new technical invention. He covered the 
entire canvas with sheets of gold leaf and then   painted over the gold with a dark wash, which 
he then flicked with flakes of gold on top.   If we look at where the background 
meets the meadow – which is primed   in the conventional way – we can see how the 
artist was playing with different textures .  He used eight different types of gold in The Kiss. 
He also builds up texture underneath the gold leaf   to give it a three-dimensional aspect – to catch 
the light – in the same way Byzantine mosaics do.   It is gold that we think of when we think of 
Klimt. His father was a goldsmith and Klimt had   a lifelong fascination with the precious metal. 
He traveled to Ravenna to see the Byzantine mosaics,  a major influence on his ‘Golden period.’
The Kiss, with the dazzling glow of an altarpiece   has become an icon for the post-religious age, and 
the Gold surrounding them almost hints at a halo.   Gold leaf is fragile and comes in gossamer thin 
sheets. For the relief sections Klimt would use   gesso, which is a mixture of animal glue and chalk 
dust. He would paint the thick mixture on in the   required pattern and then apply the gold leaf. 
The excess was then discarded. Apart from Gold,   the other precious metal we see here looks like silver, 
but is in fact Platinum, more expensive than Gold   but unlike Silver it doesn’t Oxidise. There is more 
pure Gold than you think in The Kiss. If we look   at this ultraviolet scan. All of the parts which 
are dark, including the background, have a layer of   pure Gold leaf – only the white patches reveal where 
there is no Gold. Even after applying Gold leaf to   the surface we can see how Klimt is happy to paint 
over the gold and mix both materials and textures.   He doesn’t use Gold for its realistic qualities.
It is too shiny and reflective of light – but rather as   an object of desire. Gold is an indicator of 
wealth, and its resistance to tarnishing has   ensured it was used to decorate the tombs of 
Gods and in religious paintings for centuries.   Klimt uses Gold to confer status on the Nouveau 
rRche women of Vienna – to suggest opulence, wealth   and beauty. The theme was not new but the overt 
eroticism was. Klimt knew Edvard Munch’s painting   from over 10 years before, and both artists 
were aware of Rodin’s even earlier sculpture.   The first time Klimt painted an embrace, he shows 
a romantic couple about to kiss. The artist who   avoided any form of romantic relationship, 
places the disembodied figures of old-age,   disease and death above the young couple. Passion 
he tells us, is fraught with uncertainty.  The Beethoven frieze was part of a successful group 
show of the Secessionists inspired by Beethoven’s   9th symphony. A watershed in both Vienna’s 
AND Klimt’s artistic evolution. The freieze by   Klimt features an embracing couple, similar in both 
composition and aesthetics to The Kiss.  ‘Love’ here is surrounded by demonic creatures. The
Stoclet frieze, a privately commissioned mosaic, features   an embrace of an erotic nature – a similar motif to 
The Kiss. As in the Stoclet frieze, Klimt suggests   the couple in the kiss are naked under their 
garments. It is worth reminding ourselves what the   average Viennese couple were wearing at the time, 
to understand why it was considered so provocative.   Klimt was an admirer of Aubrey Beardsley, and the 
clothes were inspired by his Art Nouveau style,   as well as the organic forms 
of ‘The Arts and Crafts Movement.’   The clothes are a visual metaphor for the 
emotional and physical expression of erotic love.  His robe is emblazoned with upright black 
rectangles, a symbol of thrusting masculinity.   Her robe is studied with whirls and spirals said to 
symbolize the Ova. I don’t think it’s an accident   that the shape of the entwined couple is itself 
a Golden Phallic symbol. Klimt’s figures often   have a stiff ‘statue-like’ appearance, and he was 
said to be inspired by the Belgian sculptor George Minne,    who used what was called the perfect “Gothic”
body – slim, expressive and youthful. Minne was also   influential for younger Austrian artists like Egon 
Schiele and Oscar Kokoshka – both followers of Klimt.   Like Monet and van Gogh, Klimt collected Japanese 
prints, which were hugely influential. ‘Japonisme’ can   be seen in the very simplified composition, but 
also in the tight cropping – with the man’s head   painted very close to the top of the canvas. 
A departure from traditional Western art.   Klimt’s complicated feelings towards ‘love’ 
come out in The Kiss, and the figures are   pictured on a patch of flowery meadow BUT 
they are teetering at the edge of a cliff.   Despite the religious comparisons with icons, 
the lovers, with garlands in their hair, have a   distinctly ‘pagan’ look. The man wears a crown of 
vines and the woman wears a crown of flowers,   suggesting that this is the consummation 
of some kind of ritual. One theory is that   in this picture Klimt is representing the myth 
of Apollo and Daphne from Ovid’s metamorphosis.   Most artists when depicting the story show the 
moment Daphne is running from Apollo, as she begs   the Gods to transform her into a Laurel tree, to 
protect her from Apollo’s advances. But the last   paragraph of Metamorphosis refers specifically 
to “a kiss” AFTER she has transformed into a tree,   which is rarely portrayed. The legs of the woman 
in The Kiss seem to be sinking into the ground,   as tendrils of Golden Laurel leaves, emanating 
from her body, root themselves into the meadow,  and suggest Daphne’s transformation into a Laurel 
tree. The man’s face is not shown to the viewer.   Klimt almost exclusively painted women, and when 
men did feature in his paintings they were just an   accessory. He is bent downwards to press a kiss to 
the woman’s cheek, and his hands are cradling the   woman’s face, which is turned towards the viewer, 
Her eyes are closed like a trance or in ecstasy.   She has one arm wrapped around the man’s neck, 
the other resting gently on his hand, and her face   is upturned to receive the man’s kiss… or is it? 
One of the great mysteries of The Kiss is who   are the models? It is suggested that this 
is a portrait of Klimt and Emilie Flöge.   She was a businesswoman, and an avant-garde 
fashion designer. A woman way ahead of her   time, and a companion to Klimt for 27 years. 
It seems that the relationship may have begun   as an infatuation – on his part. But matured 
into an extremely close friendship that was   intellectually and emotionally intimate rather 
than physical. The actual life model was more   likely to be a woman known as “Red Hilda” who she 
bears a strong resemblance to. She was the model   for many of his paintings and one of Klimt’s many 
lovers. There has been endless debate about what   exactly is the relationship between the couple. 
Is it romantic? Is she bending to receive the kiss   or turning away? If we do take it as an allegorical 
portrait of Klimt and Flöge, then the ambiguity   of the relationship in the painting is a perfect 
reflection of their own ambiguous relationship.   The man tries to kiss her but she turns her head 
away, there is a tenderness there an acceptance   of affection, but she is not compliant. Her eyes 
and mouth are firmly closed – unusual for Klimt’s   paintings, where the woman often has an open 
‘sexualized’ mouth. Could The Kiss, long thought   to be the most romantic painting in history, 
actually be a depiction of a platonic relationship? When it was shown in Vienna, it was immediately 
bought by the Austrian government. Klimt’s work,   once considered pornographic and deviant, was 
put on display in one of the Imperial palaces.   Gustav Klimt would be part of the last 
cultural explosion before the demise of   the Austro-Hungarian empire, a political entity 
that was ridiculously antiquated in its day and   was to die in the same year that Klimt did – 1918. 
Egon Schiele would die just a few months later.   And just like that, an intense period of 
creativity and vitality drew to an end.   Klimt is often dismissed by critics today, as an 
artist who simply produced ‘decorative artifice.’   But his work served as an important role in bridging
academic realism and the coming world of abstraction. He pushed the boundaries of what Freud 
called “the misunderstood and much maligned erotic.”   And depicted the human figure as never before.   And then he gave us ‘The Kiss’, one of the most 
compelling and truthful images of the 20th century.  We don’t really know about 
Klimt’s thoughts on ‘The Kiss’,   but maybe we don’t need to. As he once said: “If you 
want to know about me – just look at my paintings”
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