The Kiss is Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting — a celebration of love and the joyous loss of self in the moment of passion. It’s remains popular as a print and poster because it captures a universal human emotion, a glorious expression of love between two who have, if only for an instant, become as one. He completed the painting in 1908, but chances are the image has been exchanged thousands of times today as the ideal Valentine's Day Card!
The figures appear to merge, almost losing their individual forms, united by the glowing aura of gold. The man’s encompassing cape is decorated with solid, masculine rectangular blocks. The woman’s dress is patterned with circular, sensual shapes evocative of flowers. The closed circle, the beginning and end, completion. The motif seems to spread onto the lining of the cape, implying the essence of one within the other. Kneeling on the edge of a limitless void, the figures seem to levitate against the top of the square composition — weightless, buoyed up by their soaring ecstasy.
We can also read magical symbolism. The circle is rich with meanings and often represents a perfect balance, the essence within harmonising with that surrounding it. The macrocosm and microcosm. A promise of eternity. A ring exchanged between lovers as a symbol of fidelity…
It also relates to the spiral motif which Klimt often employed, and the spiral is one of the oldest symbols used by humans, thought to represent both the sun above and the energy of life. It can be found in cave art and recurs in the art of so many cultures ever since, perhaps most prominently in Viking and Celtic knot-work designs. Here, it suggests the promise of unfurling ferns, of opening up.
The large square of the canvas which echoes through the repeated pattern in the man’s robe, along with the colour brown, traditionally represents the element of earth, the physical realm, from which the two kissers seem to be escaping from… almost.
They wear garlands in their hair, perhaps a classical reference, evoking a poetically pagan feel, pre-Christain Spring rites or Adam and Eve, even. The abundant flora in the foreground is clearly symbolising fertility and linking both visually and thematically to the circular motif on the woman’s garment. The cycle of nature and its perfect transient beauty. The Joys of Spring!
The use of gold here is ostentatious and The Kiss is seen as the culmination of what is now known as Klimt’s ‘Golden Period’. The artist had used gold prominently in his works since being impressed by the abundant gold leaf featured in Byzantine icons he studied during his 1903 visit to the Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy.
The lustre created by gold cannot be conveyed via the media of print or screen and lends a luminosity to the works. The precious metal also brings added symbolic meaning, of incorruptible purity as it does not tarnish.
As well as the strong Byzantine influence we can detect Romantic links. The gold is layered over painted areas and then detail is etched in with a stylus. In William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea, painted in 1820 on a much smaller scale, the British pre-Romantic had experimented with similar techniques of burnishing gold leaf into a painting and then over-painting and scratching back the surface.
There’s also another strong correlation with the Romantic movement in the Art Nouveau illustrations by the Decadent artist, Aubrey Beardsley: The way that figures are consumed by decorative surface pattern, their forms cleverly suggested with minimal clues — a well-observed hand or a simple curve.
Both Beardsley and Klimt, among very many others, were influenced by nineteenth-century Japanese prints and that’s at its most obvious here. It’s thought that the work of Francesco Hayez, often referred to as an ‘Orientalist’, also affected the development of Klimt’s style and a direct reference can be seen to the treatment of the same subject in an 1859 painting by the prominent Italian Romantic…
Klimt was in demand as a portrait painter and very popular with young women clients. He was offered more commissions than he could take. One reason why he was so popular with women was his sensitivity and response to feminine beauty and the ‘immortality’ a Klimt portrait represented.
He captured their beauty, freezing it in time as well as literally clothing the figure in gold, which has an intrinsic value in itself and more importantly does not corrode and is a symbol of eternity, metaphorically preserving their youth and beauty in its prime…
However, The Kiss is not a portrait and was not produced for a client. It’s thought that the models for the painting were Klimt himself with his long-time companion, Emilie Flöge. The lovers in the painting remain anonymous and therefore have universal appeal. Although this was not a commission, Klimt found a buyer before he’d completed the work. The Kiss was bought by the Austrian government for public exhibition and now hangs in the Österreichische Galerie, Belvedere.
Celebrate love in all its glorious forms. Celebrate life!
All images are used with license, are in the Public Domain or are presented here for educational purposes under fair usage policy.