A masterpiece of the early Modern period, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss is a deceptively simple portrait of lust and love.
In The Kiss, the woman is being absorbed by the man, while both figures are engulfed by the body of gold in which they lie. The background suggests a night sky, while the bodies teeter at the edge of a flowery meadow, as if they are in danger of cascading into the darkness. Much like Adele Bloch-Bauer I, and other paintings of its ilk, representational forms only barely emerge from a highly ornate but ultimately abstract form, in this case the golden shroud, beautifully juxtaposed against the brown and green.
Indeed, Klimt’s biographer Frank Whitford has pointed out that earlier studies for the picture show the man with a beard, suggesting that he might be meant to represent the artist himself, while the woman represents Block-Bauer.The Kiss is considered the masterpiece of the artist’s “Golden Period,” and although the decoration is particularly elaborate, Klimt used it for symbolic purposes, with rectangular forms evoking masculinity, while circular forms evoke the feminine.
Before creating this piece, Klimt had received scathing scorn in the first decade of the 20th century for his three-part University of Vienna Ceiling Paintings. Because of the nudity in these works, his interpretation of Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence were derided as “pornography” and “perverted excess,” wounding his reputation.
The painter’s works mostly focused on women, so the inclusion of a man—albeit one whose face is obscured—was unusual for Klimt. The figures’ modest dress also marks this painting as one of Klimt’s more conservative creations.
Some art historians have theorized that the lovers seen lip-locked here are none other than the Austrian painter and his long-time partner, fashion designer Emilie Flöge, who he had previously depicted in a portrait.
Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was Vienna’s most renowned advocator of Art Nouveau, or, as the style was known in Germany, Jugendstil (“youth style”). He is remembered as one of the greatest decorative painters of the twentieth century, and he also produced one of the century’s most significant bodies of erotic art. Initially successful as a conventional academic painter, his encounter with more modern trends in European art encouraged him to develop his own eclectic and often fantastic style.