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This kissing couple is one of the best loved paintings in history, but what do we really know about it? Let's learn about its creator (Gustav Klimt), the historical moment it sprang from (turn-of-the-century Austria), and what it means when we look at it today (dubious consent?).

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Kissing isn't always pretty, but it has been routinely depicted in the history of art.  In Ancient Egypt and in Greece.  Judas kissing Jesus before betraying him.  Pygmalion bring Galatea to life.  A stolen kiss.  A kiss and more.  Lovers in embrace have been the subject of many a painting and sculpture, realistic and also abstract, active, and less active, but perhaps the greatest loved kiss in art emerged from turn of the 20th century Austria.  The work of an artist known for retaining a bevy of models to paint at whim.  Two figures subsumed in golden decoration and in each other.  Let's better know "The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt.  

The painting lives inside the Belvidere Museum in Vienna, Austria and it's perfectly square, measuring nearly 6 feet on each side.  The woman is kneeling, her body in profile, while her head tilts to face us directly, held firmly, carefully, in the hands of the man who hovers above her.  One of her hands curls around his and the over drapes around his formidable neck.  Her skin is pale.  His is ready.  Her eyes are closed and we see just a sliver of his face as he plants his smoocher.  They both wear elaborately patterned clothing, his a voluminous smock covered in rectangular forms, and hers a slim column with rounded forms.  They're surrounded by flowers, poised on the edge of a hill, her feet curled over the edge.  All else around them is gold, a nebulous shimmering field that places them nowhere in time and only perhaps Earth-bound in space.

Klimt had been blown away by the Byzantine gilt glass mosaics he visited in Ravenna, Italy in 1903, just a few years before painting "The Kiss".  He had put gold to use in previous works, but the visit issued forth a golden period for Klimt, in which he combined gold leaf with oils and bronze paint to great effect, capturing his subjects, be they models or wealthy Viennese societywomen, as if they were religious icons.  

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His style had evolved since his early years painting commissions during the architectural boom of late 19th century Vienna, working with his brother Ernst and arist Franz (?~2:11), Klimt mostly followed art norms of the time.  You know, academic and allegorical subjects, no pubic hair.  After his brother's death, Klimt went his own way, cofounding the Vienna Secession in 1897 with his friends.  Their motto, to age its art, to art its freedom announced their break from tradition and embrace of a broad spectrum of experimental art, design, music, and literature.

They were part of the wider art nouveau movement and a wholesale revisioning of Vienna from olden (?~2:42) to modern, international, and decadent.  Klimt shocked the establishment with a series of controversial paintings commissioned by the University of Vienna in 1894, presenting a darker side of his assigned subjects of philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence in a manner many found obscene.

For the Secessions exhibition of Max Klinger's sculpture of Beethoven, Klimt created another work that made a stir: his Beethoven Frieze, charting an epic journey based on Wagner's interpretation of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.  We follow an allgeory where suffering humanity longs for happiness, pleading to a knight in shining armor who takes on hostile forces beyond which lie poetry and the arts, which represent an ideal realm of pure joy, pure happiness, pure love, concluding in a choir of angels and an embracing couple that may look somewhat familiar.


Despite objections to Klimt's open expression of sexuality, this was the same repressed Vienna Freud observed after all.  He was enormously successful, accepting commissions from a wealthy Belgian for his palace whose dining room frieze includes an image you might also recognize, as well as from Viennese society who sought flattering portraits with Klimt was glad to deliver, beginning with more realistic (?~3:58) influenced renderings and advancing to increasing stylization, backgrounds dissolved into decoration and abstracted pattern, influenced in part by the Japanese prints and textiles he kept around his studio, and it was mostly in his studio that Klimt could be found, retreating after his controversies to hang out with his beloved cats and make sketches of the many models he kept around should he be inspired.  


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His drawings suggest a sexually charged studio environment and are often openly erotic.  Heresay suggests he had affairs with his models and portrait sitters, but we also know he lived with his mom and sisters in the suburbs, kept very regular studio hours, and had a long term relationship with fashion designer Emilia Floge, whom he painted on a number of occasions.  It was with her that he traveled to Attersee during the summers where he made most of the landscape paintings that make up almost a quarter of his entire body of work.

It's abundantly clear, however, that women were the primary focus of Klimt's attention and love, or at least romantic union, the principle goal toward which we strive.  Some theorize the model for "The Kiss" was Emilia Floge, although the hair color suggests it might be the red haired Hilda Roth, one of his favorite models.

It's an allegorical painting, meaning it doesn't try to represent a real historical event, but rather a symbolic, imagined one.  In this case, we can't help but see it as a love story, not Klimt's, at least not exclusively, but one whose meaning extends out, out of his studio, out of turn of the century Vienna, and into an indeterminate future.

In this future, we might very well read "The Kiss" through the lens of John Berger's 1970 argument that in art history, "Men act and women appear."  That women in art have not been participants but objects of vision, recipients of the "male gaze" that Laura Mulvey described a few years after Berger.  In "The Kiss", the man is indisputably the actor, the woman a recipient of his attention.  What she wants, we can't really tell, but it would be hard to call this enthusiastic consent.

In his wider body of work, Klimt explores the female form broadly, but consistently erotically.  

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When his figures are clothed, they're covered to such a degree that it calls attention to what lies beneath.  Some have guessed that Klimt first painted his forms nude and then set about covering them thoroughly in ornamentation.  Klimt was acclaimed during his life and influenced the work of younger Austrian artists, including Egon Schiele.  He died after a stroke in 1918 and darkness would descend upon Vienna not long after: the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and devastation of World War II, during which many of his works were confiscated by Nazis and fell into questionable ownership.  Some of these restitution cases have only been recently resolved, bringing the high prices some have fetched to prominence in the news.  

The psychedelic 1960s in America and the UK saw a revival in interest in art nouveau and also Klimt's work and his renown and valuations have only grow since then.  "The Kiss" emerged from a period of decadence and finds itself in yet another age of wealth and proliferation of the new.  It has esstablished itself in contemporary culture as the ultimate symbol of love, striking a chord with the many who visit it and buy countless reproductions of it, but "The Kiss" is also at its core, unknowable, its author famously mum about his work, and its central figure closed off, inaccessible.  It's a cipher onto which you can project any number of fantasies, one in which many can find themselves in one role or another, lost in a moment and poised at the edge of a cliff beyond which lies an indeterminate future.

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