Better Know: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt
This kissing couple is one of the best loved paintings in history, but what do we really know about it? Let's learn about its creator (Gustav Klimt), the historical moment it sprang from (turn-of-the-century Austria), and what it means when we look at it today (dubious consent?).
NARRATOR: Kissing isn't always pretty.
But it has been routinely depicted in the history of art,
in ancient Egypt, and in Greece, Judas
kissing Jesus before betraying him, Pygmalion bringing Galatea
to life, a stolen kiss, a kiss and more.
Lovers in embrace have been the subject of many a painting
and sculpture, realistic and also abstract, active
and less active.
But perhaps the greatest loved kiss in art
emerged from turn of the 20th century
Austria, the work of an artist known
for retaining a bevy of models to paint at whim.
Two figures subsumed in golden decoration and in each other.
Let's better know "The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt.
The painting lives inside the Belvedere museum
in Vienna, Austria.
And it's perfectly square, measuring
nearly six feet on each side.
The woman is kneeling, her body in profile,
while her head tilts to face us directly,
held firmly, carefully in the hands of the man who
hovers above her.
One Of her hands curls around his and the other drapes
around his formidable neck.
Her skin is pale.
His is ruddy.
Her eyes are closed.
And we see just a sliver of his face as he plants his smoocher.
They both wear elaborately patterned clothing,
his a voluminous smock covered in rectangular forms,
and hers a slim column with rounded forms.
They're surrounded by flowers poised on the edge of a hill,
her feet curled over the edge.
All else around them is gold, a nebulous, shimmering field
that places them nowhere in time and only
perhaps earthbound in space.
Klimt had been blown away by the Byzantine gilt glass
mosaics he visited in Ravenna, Italy in 1903,
just a few years before painting "The Kiss."
He had put gold to use in previous works.
But the visit issued forth a golden period
for Klimt, in which he combined gold leaf with oils and bronze
paint to great effect, capturing his subjects,
be they models or wealthy Viennese society women,
as if they were religious icons.
His style had evolved since his early years
painting commissions during the architectural boom
of late 19th century Vienna.
Working with his brother, Ernst, and artist Franz Matsch,
Klimt mostly followed art norms of the time, you know,
academic and allegorical subjects, no pubic hair.
After his brother's death, Klimt went his own way,
co-founding the Vienna Secession in 1897 with his friends.
Their motto, "To each age its art, to art its freedom,"
announced their break from tradition,
an embrace of a broad spectrum of experimental art,
design, music, and literature.
They were part of the wider Art Nouveau
movement and a wholesale revisioning of Vienna
from old and stuffy to modern, international, and decadent.
Klimt shocked the establishment with a series
of controversial paintings commissioned
by the University of Vienna in 1894, presenting a darker
side of his assigned subjects of philosophy, medicine,
and jurisprudence, in a manner many found obscene.
For the Secession's exhibition of Max Klinger's sculpture
of Beethoven, Klimt created another work
that made a stir, his "Beethoven Frieze," charting an epic
journey based on Wagner's interpretation of Beethoven's
We follow an allegory where suffering humanity longs
for happiness, pleading to a knight in shining armor, who
takes on hostile forces, beyond which lie poetry
and the arts, which represent an ideal realm of pure joy,
pure happiness, pure love, concluding in a choir of angels
and an embracing couple that may look somewhat familiar.
Despite objections to Klimt's open expression of sexuality,
this was the same repressed Vienna Freud observed
after all, he was enormously successful, accepting
commissions from a wealthy Belgian for his palace, whose
dining room frieze includes an image you might also recognize.
As well as from Viennese society,
who sought flattering portraits, which
Klimt was glad to deliver.
Beginning with more realistic Sargent and Whistler
influenced renderings and advancing
to increasing stylization.
Backgrounds dissolved into decoration
and abstracted pattern, influenced in part
by the Japanese prints and textiles he
kept around his studio.
And it was mostly in his studio that Klimt
could be found, retreating after his controversies
to hang out with his beloved cats
and make sketches of the many models he kept around
should he be inspired.
His drawings suggest a sexually charged studio environment
and are often openly erotic.
Hearsay suggests he had affairs with his models and portrait
But we also know he lived with his mom and sisters
in the suburbs, kept very regular studio hours,
and had a long term relationship with fashion designer Emilie
Floge, whom he painted on a number of occasions.
It was with her that he traveled to Attersee during the summers,
where he made most of the landscape paintings
that make up almost a quarter of his entire body of work.
It's abundantly clear, however, that women
were the primary focus of Klimt's attention and love,
or at least romantic union, the principal goal
toward which we strive.
Some theorize the model for "The Kiss" was Emilie Floge.
Although the hair color suggests it
might be the red-haired Hilde Roth,
one of his favorite models.
It's an allegorical painting, meaning
it doesn't try to represent a real historical event,
but rather a symbolic, imagined one.
In this case, we can't help but see it
as a love story, not Klimt's, at least not exclusively,
but one whose meaning extends out, out of his studio,
out of turn of the century Vienna,
and into an indeterminate future.
In this future, we might very well
read "The Kiss" through the lens of John Berger's 1970 argument
that in art history, "men act and women appear."
But women and art have not been participants,
but objects of vision, recipients of the,
quote, "male gaze," that Laura Mulvey described
a few years after Berger.
In "The Kiss," the man is indisputably
the actor, the woman a recipient of his attention.
What she wants, we can't really tell.
But it would be hard to call this enthusiastic consent.
In his wider body of work, Klimt explores the female form
broadly but consistently erotically.
When his figures are clothed, they're
covered to such a degree that it calls attention
to what lies beneath.
Some have guessed that Klimt first
painted his forms nude and then set about covering them
thoroughly in ornamentation.
Klimt was acclaimed during his life
and influenced the work of younger Austrian artists
including Egon Schiele.
He died after a stroke in 1918.
And darkness would descend upon Vienna not long after,
the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
and the devastation of World War II, during which many
of his works were confiscated by Nazis
and fell into questionable ownership.
Some of these restitution cases have only
been recently resolved, bringing the high prices
some have fetched to prominence in the news.
The psychedelic 1960s in America and the UK
saw a revival in interest in Art Nouveau and also Klimt's work.
And his renown and valuations have only grown since then.
"The Kiss" emerged from a period of decadence
and finds itself in yet another age of wealth and proliferation
of the new.
It has established itself in contemporary culture
as the ultimate symbol of love, striking a chord
with the many who visit it and by countless reproductions
But "The Kiss" is also at its core unknowable.
Its author famously mum about his work and its central figure
closed off, inaccessible.
It's a cipher, onto which you can project
any number of fantasies, one in which many can find themselves
in one role or another, lost in a moment,
and poised at the edge of a cliff, beyond which lies
in indeterminate future.