The Art Assignment

S4 E11 | FULL EPISODE

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?).

AIRED: May 23, 2018 | 0:07:35
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TRANSCRIPT

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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

Ninth Symphony.

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

sitters.

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

of it.

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.

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