It was in Venice, Italy, at the Galleria Internazionale d’arte Moderna located in Cà Pesaro, the most important baroque Venetian palace, that Robert Langdon, the main character in Dan Brown’s Inferno, saw for the first time Gustave Klimt’s masterpiece The Kiss while it was on loan from Vienna.
Langdon credited Venice’s Cà Pesaro with arousing his lifelong gusto for modern art.
The Kiss (in German, Liebespaar, Lovers) is an oil painting with added silver and gold leaf by the Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.
It is considered a masterpiece of the early modern period, an icon of the Jugendstil—Viennese Art Nouveau—and is considered Klimt’s most popular work.
The painter Gustave Klimt
The Austrian painter Gustave Klimt was born in 1862 in Baumgarten, not far from Vienna, and died in there in 1918.
His father was a gold and silver engraver. Like several of his seven siblings, Klimt followed in his father’s footsteps.
By age 14, he had enrolled in Vienna’s School of Applied Arts where he studied a wide range of subjects.
Klimt opened an independent studio in 1883 specializing in the painting of murals.
He began to take on decorative commissions, such as elaborate murals and ceiling paintings for theaters and other public buildings. In the late 1880s, he populated them with classical themes and mythological figures executed so deftly that they caught the eye of Emperor Franz Josef, who awarded Klimt the Golden Order of Merit for his frescoes at the city’s Burgtheater.
He was one of the founders of the school of painting known as the Vienna Secession, founded in 1897 by a group of painters concerned with, above all else, exploring the possibilities of art outside the confines of academic tradition. The style is known for its flat perspective, references to nature, and curved lines. Klimt remained with the Secession until 1908.
Klimt’s mature style emerged in 1897, in which year he painted three allegorical murals (Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence ) for the ceiling of the University of Vienna’s auditorium, which were violently criticized; the erotic symbolism and pessimism of these works created such a scandal that the murals were rejected.
Vienna was an intensely bohemian city during Klimt’s lifetime, filled with decadence and artistic experimentation. But the city’s government and traditional art establishment railed against this avant-garde cultural movement.
It was in this paradoxical environment that pitted Victorian repression against freedom of expression that Klimt came of age. Soon he began to channel his reflections on desire, dreams, and mortality through lush, symbol-laden paintings.
He favored expressive, virile human figures, who made their desires and emotions known.
Klimt’s “Golden Phase” was marked by positive critical reaction and financial success. Many of his paintings from this period included gold leaf.
Klimt’s most successful works include The Kiss (1907–08) and a series of portraits of fashionable Viennese matrons such as Frau Fritza Riedler (1906) and Frau Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907).
In the early 1890s Klimt met Emilie Louise Flöge who, notwithstanding the artist’s relationships with other women, was to be his companion until the end of his life. His painting The Kiss is thought to be an image of them as lovers.
Klimt’s paintings have brought some of the highest prices ever recorded for individual works of art.
The Kiss by Klimt: description and meaning
The Kiss, Klimt’s most famous painting, was realised between 1907-08, the highpoint of Klimt “Golden Period,” when he painted a number of works in a similar gilded style.
The inspiration for his “Golden Phase” was presumably provided by a visit to Ravenna during his travels through Italy in 1903, which introduced him to the world of Byzantine mosaics. For Klimt the flatness of the mosaics and their lack of perspective and depth only enhanced their golden brilliance, and he started to make unprecedented use of gold and silver leaf in his own work.
The Kiss is housed in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna’s Upper Belvedere Palace.
The painting depicts a couple embracing in a field of flowers. The man is bent over the woman, and she, clinging tightly to him, awaits his kiss. In terms of ornamentation, the male figure is characterized by square and rectangular forms, while for the female, soft lines and floral patterns are dominant.
A golden halo surrounds the couple, who seem to have shaken off an earthly weight and have been transported into an infinite, almost sacred sphere.
Klimt depicts the couple locked in intimacy, while the rest of the painting dissolves into shimmering, extravagant flat patterning.
The patterning has clear ties to Art Nouveau and the organic forms of the Arts and Crafts movement. At the same time, the background evokes the conflict between two- and three-dimensionality intrinsic to the work of Degas and other modernists.
Paintings such as The Kiss were visual manifestations of fin-de-siecle spirit because they capture a decadence conveyed by opulent and sensuous images. The use of gold leaf recalls medieval “gold-ground” paintings and illuminated manuscripts, and earlier mosaics, and the spiral patterns in the clothes recall Bronze Age art and the decorative tendrils seen in Western art since before classical times.
There have been numerous attempts to identify the woman portrayed in The Kiss. Those mentioned have included Klimt’s life-long partner Emilie Flöge, but also Adele Bloch-Bauer. The subject’s well-proportioned facial features reveal a similarity to many of the women that Klimt portrayed, but ultimately they cannot be unequivocally attributed to a particular person.
When Klimt presented the painting to the public for the first time in 1908, it was acquired— still unfinished—directly from the exhibition by the Austrian Gallery. This painting represents the centrepiece of the world’s largest collection of works by Gustav Klimt, located in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna’s Upper Belvedere Palace.
This post was originally published on July 14 2014, and has been updated and enriched on August 14, 2018.