Why Is This Famous?

Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss"

On the gilded, otherworldly image of romance
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Published

Jan 17, 2019

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Edvard Munch

Gustav Klimt

Egon Schiele

In our series Why Is This Famous?, we aim to answer the unanswerable: How does a work actually enter the public consciousness? (See all installments.)

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The KissGustav Klimt
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You may not remember the first time you saw Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907–1908), but, odds are, you’ve seen it before. It may have been on the wall of a college dormitory, or in a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, or even as a reference point in another work of art. In other words, it’s pervasive. The Kiss feels singular, timeless, intense, and provokingly vague in the way many recognizable paintings are. But unlike most of the works we’ve covered in this series, The Kiss is hardly an outlier, at least in subject matter. In fact, it followed in a popular tradition in European art of capturing the moment bodies merged in a romantic kiss. Auguste Rodin’s 1882 sculpture (below) and Edvard Munch’s 1897 painting both preceded Klimt’s masterpiece, while Constance Brancusi created his 1907–1908 sculpture at the same time as Klimt. So why has the Austrian symbolist’s version endured in the popular imagination as the most omnipresent version of the scene? The answer to that question is fittingly cliché: “location, location, location”—in other words, Vienna.

''The Kiss'' by Auguste Rodin

“Enough of censorship”

Klimt was born in 1862 in Baumgarten, not far from Vienna, which was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He, like his brothers, demonstrated immense artistic talent. At the age of 14 he enrolled in a vocational arts school, the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, where he studied architectural painting. Though he started his academic career impoverished, he would connect with patrons through the school and source commissions, earning a living for himself. By the 1890s, he was positioned to be the premiere artist of Vienna’s elite; in 1888, Emperor Franz Josef I granted him a Golden Order of Merit. And so it seemed that he had a relatively comfortable life waiting for him, a rarity for an artist in that day (or, really, any other). But he would quickly forsake the establishment and choose to risk everything, giving himself an even rarer opportunity: the chance to transcend his time and place.

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DanaeGustav Klimt
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In 1897, Klimt helped form the Vienna Secession, a group of artists who had resigned from the more mainstream Association of Austrian Artists. They weren’t so much unified by a single style but a desire to move away from the accepted, academic one: art that was historically influenced and grounded in tradition. For Klimt, this meant scandalous, sexually-explicit, dream-like paintings.

From 1900 to 1907, he worked to complete a commission granted in 1894 to paint the ceilings of Vienna University, but his resulting presentation of nude women donning long hair and lean bodies (more sexually appealing than the academic tradition of large women with hair pinned up) was deemed pornographic. Klimt was forced to pay the university back and swallow that lost time. The famously laconic artist reportedly said of the incident, “Enough of censorship … I want to get away … I refuse every form of support from the state, I’ll do without all of it.” Klimt was so anti-establishment that he eventually seceded from his own succession group in 1905, because the group sought commercial gallery representation.

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Virgin (detail)Gustav Klimt
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Without a movement to speak for, Klimt entered his Gold Period, inspired by his 1903 trip to the ancient, Western Italian city of Ravenna, where he saw the Medieval mosaics in San Vitale from 547, and subsequently began to use gold leaf in his paintings. (It is generally agreed that The Kiss is the apex of Klimt’s Gold Period.) To fully embrace his severed ties from the secessionists, Klimt sold the painting to the Austrian state museum, the Belvedere Museum of Vienna, for a record price—five times that of any painting previously sold in the empire. Some members of Vienna’s elite class found the painting pornographic and unacceptable, despite the fact that Klimt not only avoids nudity in the work, he obscures any direct rendering of a sexualized form.

A timeless antidote for anxious times

In the 30 years preceding The Kiss, Vienna underwent rapid industrialization. When Klimt began painting it, anxiety over the unsure political future of the Austro-Hungarian Empire filled the air (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which would commence World War I, loomed 6 years in the future). In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Fin-de-siècle Vienna, Frederic Morton called the city “a nervous splendor.” Klimt’s devoted follower Egon Schiele’s unofficial response to The Kiss, The Embrace (1917), evokes the city’s turmoil with its anxious, pointy lines and electric, unstable forms, all buzzing with energy. The Kiss doesn’t. In fact, some might venture that it has endured for so long exactly because it doesn’t give in to its time, instead offering a quiet, timeless account of romantic love.

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The EmbraceEgon Schiele
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When Klimt used gold leaf to emulate Medieval works, he referenced those works’ intention to transcend the earthly realm. Also like medieval artists, Klimt obscures bodily form, allowing his figures to leave the unstable earth and join the vague but constant world of the cosmos. The figures in The Kiss hang off the edge of the lush green earth they stand on, straddling earth’s harsh realities and the transcendency of romantic love. While the symbolism and dream-like imagery seem to align with Klimt’s earlier works, the indistinctness of The Kiss diverges from these works’ references to specific time periods and figures (such as Hygieia from 1900, which references the Greek goddess of health and hygiene, or Beethoven Frieze, from 1901).

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Hygieia (detail from Medicine)Gustav Klimt
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Enter Freud

By the time The Kiss was completed, the famous Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud had already gained traction, diagnosing Viennese society with a panoply of sexuality-focused anxieties. So it is not surprising that The Kiss should be analyzed from that standpoint. Although Freud and Klimt never formally met, no complete interpretation of Klimt’s work ignores the temporal and physical proximity of the influential psychiatrist. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud attests that all upright shapes connote male genitalia and circular shapes female—the corresponding shapes that adorn the vague bodies in The Kiss. Many art historians take this analysis even further, arguing that the male figure’s unrealistically thick, protruding neck encroaching upon the the woman’s round, passive face is a more direct interpretation of sex.

Whether The Kiss’s fame can be explained by its historical significance, its rejection of history, its scandal, or its sexual nature, we can never know. But what can’t be denied is its kinetic energy; this exists without any context. At the risk of being trite, the work feels true, like all great works do. And for this reason alone we can be thankful that Klimt was never the painter his society asked him to be.

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