Passionate, tender, romantic: these are all suitable adjectives to describe a kiss. But Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss—presented during the Kunstschau Wien exhibition in 1908—goes beyond this. A brilliantly ornamented spectacle, Klimt’s arguably most popular piece does not just capture the moment between a loving gesture. It is also a representation of Vienna’s own Golden Age, reflecting the hopeful attitude and technological advancements of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as experimentation in design and abstraction. Today we examine what exactly makes The Kiss so transcendentally mesmerizing.
Gustav Klimt. The Kiss, 1907-08. Oil, gold, and silver leaf on canvas. 71 in × 71 in (180 cm × 180 cm). Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
When you look at The Kiss, you can’t help but notice the bright shine of Klimt’s gold leaf technique. This technique was inspired by the Byzantine tiles he saw during his travels to Ravenna. The piece depicts an embracing couple covered by a large golden cloak. They are surrounded by a glowing light that creates an ethereal, euphoric atmosphere. Thus, gold is both a symbol of the newfound cultural and economic wealth in Vienna, as well as a reference to Christian iconography.
The male, distinguished by the rectangular and geometric shapes of the fashionable Art Nouveau style, blends with the circular designs on the female body, pointing to the more traditional Arts and Crafts movement. The repeating geometric black and white motif of a male’s cloak represents his strength, virility, and masculinity. In contrast, Klimt used flowers and circles to portray the essence of femininity and maternity of the female figure.
Although The Kiss is well-known for its unique pattern work and shimmering paint, it also reflects Gustav Klimt’s typical style through the use of fine lines to depict the human figures and the intricate details surrounding them. This is particularly evident in the delicate face of the female figure, where Klimt’s artistic skills are on full display. The female’s facial features are softly shaped, including a finely crafted nose, elaborately drawn eyelashes, and delicately positioned hands.
Detail of The Kiss
Despite Klimt’s undeniable talent, he shared the same uncertainty as many artists. He once expressed doubt about his artistic abilities, acknowledging that while he believed he could draw and paint and others seemed to agree, he could not be certain if it was true.
According to records, Klimt was a brooding man with a thickset build who never married and lived an openly bohemian lifestyle, often seen in photographs wearing his painter’s smock. His love for cats was iconic, and he often welcomed a large number of them to roam freely around his studio. Despite causing chaos and sometimes even damaging his sketches, Klimt didn’t mind at all. While Klimt preferred to communicate through his paintings, his work, particularly The Kiss, hinted at subconscious thoughts and feelings through the complex details on the surface. It is no surprise that Klimt’s art is often linked to that of his Viennese contemporary, Sigmund Freud.
Gustav Klimt, 1914
During the early 1900s, Lovers (the original title for The Kiss) was considered pornographic by society, despite the fact that both individuals in the painting were fully clothed. Nevertheless, the painting was sold prior to its completion. The Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria, was the buyer, paying a record-breaking price of 25,000 crowns, equivalent to around $240,000 in modern-day U.S. currency, which was five times more than any previous painting sold in Vienna. However, this price ended up being a bargain, as Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which is less well-known but still quite famous, sold for $135 million in 2006, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at the time, according to The New York Times.
Gustav Klimt. Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Oil, gold, and silver leaf on canvas. 55 in × 55 in (140 cm × 140 cm). Neue Galerie, New York.
Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece The Kiss transcends the boundaries of a simple romantic gesture. The intricate details, fine lines, and shimmering gold leaf technique of the painting demonstrate Klimt’s incredible artistic skill. Despite Klimt’s personal doubts about his talent, his work has stood the test of time. Klimt’s art continues to inspire and captivate viewers, and his legacy as one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century remains intact.
“All art is erotic.” ―Gustav Klimt
“Truth is like fire; to tell the truth means to glow and burn.” ―Gustav Klimt
“Whoever wants to know something about me, they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognise what I am and what I want.” ―Gustav Klimt
“Today I want to start working again in earnest—I’m looking forward to it because doing nothing does become rather boring after a while.” ―Gustav Klimt
“His erotic nature―surrender to the material and at the same time its mastery―makes Klimt a prophet of female beauty. Thousands of drawings speak of how deeply he was immersed in this cult... The drawings establish his most incontestable claim to the title of mastership; their suppleness quivering with feeling is unparalleled in the whole of art today.” —Hans Tietze
Kelly Richman-Abdou. The Story Behind Gustav Klimt’s Shimmering Symbolist Painting “The Kiss.” My Modern MET.
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