Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” is one of the most iconic paintings from the early 20th century and undoubtedly the most famous work in the artist’s elaborate oeuvre. “The Kiss” debuted at the 1908 Kunstschau art show in Vienna. It was displayed at the height of Klimt’s career when he finally achieved critical and financial success. Created during the Viennese Art Nouveau and Secession movements, this signature work typifies his lavish gilding techniques, flair for sensual feminine subjects and the zeitgeist of the modern period. Thanks to the qualities imparted by the theme of passion, romance and Grecian eros, this masterpiece is equally appreciated more than a century after its debut.
The Kunstschau 1908
Held during a time when exhibitions were highly anticipated public events, the Kunstschau was a world’s fair-scale display dedicated entirely to the decorative arts. Austria’s largest public exhibition was organized by Klimt, Josef Hoffmann and their peers. The building included 54 rooms filled with art from 179 artists, architects and designers. There were cafés, courtyards, gardens and galleries lined with furniture, jewelry, posters, glassware, ceramics, clothing and decorative objects from great artists like Franz Kupka, Max Oppenheimer and many lesser-known creators.
In the heart of the exhibition hall was a central gallery featuring 16 of Klimt’s paintings. Klimt was the darling of the Kunstschau, and “The Kiss” was the star of his presentation. This was the greatest display of his paintings assembled during his lifetime, and it happened at the zenith of his career. In 1909, he only displayed seven new works. Although he continued painting until his death in 1918 and won several awards, no display would rival the 1908 Kunstschau.
Symbolism, Technique and Analysis
As a ubiquitous work of art found on posters, postcards and countless commercial products, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” has never ceased to inspire artists and to entice art historians to explore the many questions and mysteries that surround this piece and are found within it.
Building on Klimt’s impressionistic landscape paintings and abstract portraits, “The Kiss” and other pieces from the so-called golden era incorporate many more fantastical decorations. Like the famous “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), “The Kiss” displays a multitude of golden mosaics and abstract symbols where the faces, hands and human features are the only naturalistic elements.
Despite the traditional depiction of these features, they are arranged in a paradoxical manner. For example, the woman’s head curiously faces forward and is bent backward while her body melds into the male figure. The intricacy of the male and female bodies is juxtaposed against a two-dimensional background that is speckled with golden stardust. Klimt explored the use of disparate textures and surfaces in portraits that were produced previously and subsequently. Flat backgrounds appear in The Stoclet Frieze “Tree of Life” (1909) and “Portrait of Fritza Riedler” (1906), but this method was never so thoroughly exploited as it is in “The Kiss”.
Influences and Comparisons
The image of the simple kiss is a sub-genre in art, and Klimt’s painting is a significant work in this group. Klimt’s “The Kiss” is most frequently compared to Edvard Munch’s 1897 painting with the same name. While there are obvious compositional similarities, Munch colors the image of love with bitter hues of desolation and despair. In this respect, Klimt’s interpretation could not be more different. His figures reflect their bliss outwardly in gold.
In many analyses, experts interpret the love-filled embrace as a transformative and almost religious experience. The artist’s rendering also lends to this opinion. There’s some evidence that Klimt was inspired by the Byzantine mosaics he saw while visiting Italy in 1903. Other experts cite similarities to medieval art, which Klimt might have seen during the same tour. The use of gold leaf is often compared to religious paintings and icons. However, he modernized these gilded works by adding themes of love and passion that are much more human than angelic.
In “The Kiss”, the embracing man and woman are enveloped by a warm, protective blanket of light not unlike an ecclesiastical mandorla or halo. This original approach and combination of techniques propelled Klimt’s career and made the public take notice.
Like any great artist, Klimt had many varied influences from ecclesiastical art to the classically inspired paintings of fellow Austrian Hans Makart. He also influenced future generations. Around the time of the famed Kunstschau 1908, the aspiring artist Egon Schiele met Klimt. This meeting shaped Schiele’s future and quirky abstract style. Over the years, Klimt influenced many other artists to develop original styles that are bold, sensuous and passionate.
The Theme of Love
In “The Kiss”, Klimt gave the world one of the most alluring visual interpretations of love. This universal theme can be appreciated by anyone and is the secret behind the painting’s undying popularity. Not only does Klimt show love as an exception between the duality of the sexes. He shows it as a passionate, ecstatic state of being. This could be one reason why the painting was so shocking for audiences in the early 1900s.
“The Kiss” is a dazzling work of art that lures the viewer in with its mosaic patterns and gilding, but its profound depiction of love is what captivates each viewer. Love is an experience that Klimt surely felt himself, which has led to endless speculation. Some say that the painting might depict Klimt embracing his life partner and lover Emilie Flöge. Others believe that it resembles the enigmatic model Red Hilda who appears in “Danae” (1907-1908), “Lady with Hat and Feather Boa” (1909) and others.
This enthralling depiction of love has made Klimt’s “The Kiss” one of the greatest paintings of all time. The masterpiece also made Gustav Klimt a household name. Today, millions of visitors flock to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna to see “The Kiss” and 23 other paintings by Austria’s foremost artist. Fortunately, reproductions and traveling exhibitions allow everyone else to experience the painting’s undeniable charm.
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