Obscene or Intimate? Gustav Klimt's The Kiss As An Expression of Love

Passionate, radical, even erotic. You may not know by looking at it, but The Kiss by Gustav Klimt pushed the boundaries of propriety of the early 20th Century. Sometimes it is often difficult for us to truly appreciate how significant and revolutionary a work may be without first appreciating the historical context first. The world of the Austrian born symbolist painter was a much different world than today’s, gender divides were far more pronounced and what one could display in art was much less flexible than today’s art culture. To truly understand Klimt and why The Kiss has remained so popular, we must examine Klimt himself and what he set out to do.

The Man

Born in 1862 just outside of Vienna, Austria as the eldest son of a gold engraver, Klimt was a creative mind from the offset. In his early life, he dabbled in architectural painting and embraced his classical training and the conservative principles of the art world at the time. Together with his two other brothers, Klimt built a name for himself by painting murals and public buildings around Vienna.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, Klimt suffered significant tragedies after the death of his father and brother, thus taking on the financial responsibilities for his family and his brother’s family. This in turn affected Klimt’s art practice, causing him to stray away from his previous more classic style and explore a new personal vision and aesthetic. His work at this time started to draw more heavily from classical literature and explore the female body with his inclusion of the Nuda Veritas (naked truth) as a symbolic figure throughout many of his works. In 1897, Klimt founded and became the first president of a group called the Vienna Succession, the provide exposure for unconventional artists and aimed to paint with censure, refusing to remove the sexual or indelicate subject matter from their works. These ideas and interest in the erotic and sexual would follow Klimt throughout his life and be a continual source of inspiration, cultivating in his three work series known as the Vienna Ceiling Paintings. For most of his life, Klimt led a very bohemian lifestyle, having many lovers and subsequent children however, it was during this transitional time in his work and personal life that he met Austrian fashion designer, Emilie Louise Flöge, who became his lifelong companion, muse and on and off lover.

Klimt is most well known for what artist and historians call his ‘Golden Period’, a period of time from roughly 1898 to 1908, in which he received much critical and financial success. Most of his notable works from this time include Pallas Athene (1898), Judith (1901), Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and of course The Kiss (1907-1908). The pieces from this period stand out from his others for his eyecatching use of gold leaf.

The Kiss, 1907/1908 by Gustav Klimt, Credit: Belvedere Museum, Vienna

The Kiss

Following the dismal failure of his Vienna Ceiling Paintings which the art community denounced as obscene and pornographic due to the depiction of nude women in the paintings and his resignation from the Vienna Succession. The Kiss was a much needed and instant success, selling before it was even finished, sparking both admiration and controversy from society at the time.

The Kiss is Klimt’s most popular work and is the culminating piece of his Golden Period. A large oil on canvas with his signature gold leafing, this piece explores sexuality and eroticism in a way few other artists at the time were willing to explore. Situated firmly in the centre of the painting, these two figures of a man and a woman embrace each other in a way that was considered to be near obscene for a man and woman to be in such close contact. Although there is no nudity to be seen and both figures are engulfed in a large coat, the fact that they have been depicted in such an intimate moment was shocking for audiences at the time. For a man and a woman to be expressing physical affection in such a way was almost unheard of and if they were unmarried, to be alone together would be scandalous. The couple in the painting is thought to have even been Klimt himself with his long-time lover and companion Emilie Louise Flöge, thus adding to the scandalous aspect of the piece.

The painting is highly symbolic, showing an interplay of aesthetics and energies between the male with bold black geometric shapes running down his garment and the organic, feminine shapes like the wavy lines and spirals that run up her dress and function by softening the male’s very dominant shapes. The way the gold coat encircles and shields them, drawing the eye straight to them and illuminating their love, combined with their positioning interlocked in an embrace is emblematic of the strength of unbreakable love when a couple is truly connected. This piece explores the way Klimt masterfully marries aesthetics in a sensual and intimate moment between two lovers.

You can see a lot of where Klimt got his inspiration by looking at this mosaics on the ceiling of a Byzantine Church.

Though Klimt received significant classical training, the influences for The Kiss are actually wide a varied. Although he was the son of a gold engraver, he was inspired by gold leaf on the mosaics of Byzantine art commonly seen on the ceilings of churches during his trip to Ravenna. The composition of the painting harkens back to traditional Japanese prints, such as the way the figures take up most of the space reaching all the way to the top of the canvas, as opposed to just the centre and foreground as seen in most of the art in Europe at the time. Of course, the piece also borrows heavily from the art nouveau movement that way rapidly gaining popularity, Klimt himself has credited with being with helping to propel art nouveau into the public eye.

The Kiss by Lladró

An homage to the legacy of Gustav Klimt, this piece featuring Lladró’s signature gold lustre was made to mark the 150th Anniversary of Klimt’s birth. Read more about Lladró’s signature 24-karat yellow-gold lustre.

A challenging piece to create due to the popularity of Klimt’s most famous work and in trying to stay true to the spirit of the original piece by means of decoration in which the golden lustre, the application of enamels and the different shades of gloss and matt finishes highlight the decadence of this and the original. Lladró successfully brings a fresh take on this piece by taking off the canvas and bringing it into the three dimensional, allowing the viewer to appreciate the artistic skill of both Klimt and the Lladró sculptors.

The Kiss Sculpture by Lladró, by being so up close to the piece, you can see how the masculine and feminine play into each other and intermingle with the swirl shapes appearing among the geometric on the male figure’s coat.

While it is reasonable to say that some of The Kiss’s popularity was from its infamy, times change and it does not have the same connotations today as it did in 1908. Regardless, The Kiss is a beloved piece as it shows the immortalising and strengthening nature of love when it is fully embraced. Love is something that resonates with most of us, it is no surprise that Klimt’s works still catches the eyes and captivates the heart.


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