Art Analysis: The Kiss by Klimt

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (1908-1909)
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (1908-1909)

Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss is the archetype of tenderness and passion. This shimmering, colourful, love scene of two faces and bodies embracing each other, is conserved at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. Although clearly extravagant, the gold leaf covered canvas does not compromise the profound significance behind the work. Artsper invites you to dive into this erotic, ambiguous and mythical work, and discover its fascinating meaning.

The Context

The only complete photograph of Klimt’s renowned piece Medicine, which was destroyed by the Nazis during WWII. His other works in this series, Philosophy and Jurisprudence, were also destroyed.
The only complete photograph of Klimt’s renowned piece Medicine, which was destroyed by the Nazis during WWII. His other works in this series, Philosophy and Jurisprudence, were also destroyed.

Klimt painted The Kiss at a critical moment in his career: in the midst of an artistic panic. He had just received scathing criticism for his University of Vienna ceiling paintings, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence. The paintings were described as pornographic, and Klimt had reservations about his work and corrupted reputation. Moreover, he had just left the Vienna Secession, despite having founded and acted as the first president of the movement. This group aimed to break ties with the Academy of Fine Arts and its conservative values. The Vienna Secessionists painted “what they shouldn’t have painted”, refusing to remove sexual elements from their works. They explored the power of a delicate touch, an embrace, a kiss, a moment of violence or an erotic scene. Although Klimt left the movement due to disagreements, he remained its main representative along with Egon Schiele. Additionally, after breaking away from the Secession, Klimt organised The Kunstschau exhibition where he presented The Kiss for the first time to the public. The event was received with fierce criticism and ended in financial disaster. However despite this, the exhibition actually initiated the astronomical success of The Kiss. The Viennese government bought the work even before the exhibition had ended, as it was deemed a national interest.

The Embellishments

Klimt The Kiss
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, Close-up of the embellishments

The work presents an embracing couple, concealed behind a large golden cloak. This heavy embellishment protects and encircles the couple, reiterating the immortality of their love. Two distinctive parts constitute the image: the first part depicting the man shows a repeating geometric black and white motif, symbolising his strength, virility and masculinity. Meanwhile, the second part portrays that of the woman, where Klimt uses flowers and circles to reflect images of femininity and maternity.

The couple

Gustave Klimt and his muse Emilie Flöge
Gustave Klimt and Emilie Flöge in a boat on the Attersee lake (1910)

The man and woman are the only figures in this artwork where they are shown giving into their desires, completely untouched by time or reality. Initially, the man appears to dominate the woman due to his size, but the woman’s foot is exposed under the embellishment suggesting that she is kneeling down. Therefore, if she were standing, she would actually be larger than her male companion, and in turn dominate him. This embrace could be seen as a self-portrait, where the lovers are symbolic of the artist and his long-term partner, Emilie Flöge. However, the female figure could also be another of Klimt’s many muses or romantic conquests. As Klimt painted relentlessly, he also loved women relentlessly, and had many lovers over his lifetime.

The Embrace

Klimt The Kiss Embrace
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, Close-up on the embrace

Like many of Klimt’s works that depict embraces, The Kiss conceals the man’s face and focuses instead on that of the woman. In this work, the young woman’s facial expression and closed eyes simultaneously evoke feelings of abandonment, ecstasy and delight. Although the position of the man who embraces her may appear intrusive, the way his hands gently hold her face evoke feelings of tenderness and warmth. The lovers appear in an unbreakable embrace, yet despite the fact they are intertwined on a flowerbed they are also on the edge of an abyss, threatening to disappear forever.

The Golden Phase

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907)
Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907)

The Kiss constitutes the height of Gustav Klimt’s “golden phase”, where his father’s occupation as a goldsmith ignited his taste for the element. Having familiarised himself with this trade, Klimt used a powered gold coating in The Kiss, where the shimmering background acts as a golden cocoon for the lovers.  Whether it’s due to the use of gold, or the audacious subject matter, The Kiss is a captivating and shocking work for all those who have the privilege to see it in the flesh.

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