Art In Pieces — The Kiss by Gustav Klimt: Art History Explained 🎨

Gustav Klimt was one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th century, known for his unique style and contributions to the modern art movement. Klimt's painting "The Kiss" is one of his most famous works and a quintessential example of his innovative style. The painting reflects the transformation of Vienna at the turn of the 19th century and its emergence as a hub of creativity and experimentation. In this article, we will delve into the history and symbolism of "The Kiss," and explore Klimt's influence on art history.

The Golden Age of Vienna

Vienna, a city known for its conservative and traditional ways, was undergoing a transformation at the turn of the 19th century. A group of artists, architects, musicians, and social scientists were experimenting in ways that would revolutionise their respective fields. Vienna was the home to both traditional institutions such as the academic art scene, Johann Strauss, and the Habsburg empire, as well as radical artists like Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele who were challenging the status quo with their sexual explorations.

Architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos were pushing the boundaries of imperial design, while Gustav Mahler was transforming the musical life of the city. At the same time, Sigmund Freud was about to change the way the world thought about the human mind. Vienna was experiencing a new "golden age," and was at the forefront of modernity, shaping the 20th century.

In 1857, Emperor Franz Josef ordered the building of the Ringstrasse, a series of tree-lined boulevards that circled the city. The Bourgeoisie of Vienna built huge mansions alongside new public buildings, and the palaces needed to be decorated. Gustav Klimt and his brother were successful mural painters and became world-renowned artists.

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt, a mysterious figure, was a prodigious lover and father of 14 children by as many women. He lived with his mother his whole life and was afraid of mental illness. He didn't attend a fine arts school but rather an arts and crafts school, where he learned practical skills and techniques. His lifetime goal was to blur the distinction between fine art and craft.

When both his brother and father died suddenly, Klimt's art took a dark and sexual turn. He was commissioned to decorate the University of Vienna, causing a public scandal with his sexually provocative themes. He was accused of producing pornography and was rejected by the university. Klimt then formed the Vienna Secession, a society of young artists, with the aim of bringing art, craft, architecture, and design together as one movement. The Secession broke away from traditional historical painting and gave contemporary art its first dedicated space.

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt — 1907-1908
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt — 1907-1908

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt One of Klimt's most famous paintings, "The Kiss," is seen as a romantic ideal, but ironically, the artist himself was never romantically involved and was afraid of intimacy. He had an obsession with sex and bedded most of his models, yet he went home each night to his mother and two unmarried sisters. The painting, at six feet by six feet, is practically life-size and connects with viewers on a human scale. It is self-contained and deceptively simple, with realistically rendered flesh contrasting with two-dimensional abstract ornamentation, creating an effect almost like photomontage. The bodies are are encased like an ancient Egyptian mummy painted with a contemporary sensuality, in cascades of gold and abstract patterns, floating in a golden cosmos outside of time and space.

The clothing worn by the couple serves as a visual representation of the physical and emotional expression of erotic love. The man's robe is adorned with upright black rectangles, symbolising masculinity, while the woman's robe is decorated with swirling patterns said to symbolize the female reproductive system. It's worth noting that the shape formed by the couple's entwined bodies takes the form of a golden phallic symbol, lending further meaning to the painting's exploration of sexuality and desire.

The background is Klimt's new technical invention. He covered the entire canvas with sheets of gold leaf and then painted over the gold with a dark wash, which he then flicked with flakes of gold on top. If we look at where the background meets the meadow - which is primed in the conventional way - we can see how the artist was playing with different textures. He used eight different types of gold in The Kiss. He also builds up texture underneath the gold leaf to give it a three-dimensional aspect - to catch the light - in the same way Byzantine mosaics do. It is gold that we think of when we think of Klimt. His father was a goldsmith and Klimt had a lifelong fascination with the precious metal.

Gustav Klimt didn't use gold for its realistic qualities, as it was too shiny and reflective of light, but rather for its symbolic value. Throughout history, gold has been used to confer status and to indicate wealth, and its resistance to tarnishing has made it a popular choice for decorating tombs of Gods and in religious paintings. In Klimt's paintings, particularly those depicting the wealthy women of Vienna, gold serves as a symbol of opulence, wealth, and beauty. Through his use of gold, Klimt imbues his subjects with a sense of prestige, making it an integral part of his unique style and lasting legacy.

Apollo And Daphne Greek Myth Theory

The interpretation of "The Kiss" as a representation of the consummation of a pagan ritual can be seen in the depiction of the lovers with garlands in their hair, the man wearing a crown of vines, and the woman wearing a crown of flowers. This depiction has led to comparisons with the myth of Apollo and Daphne from Ovid's "Metamorphoses." In the story, Daphne transforms into a Laurel tree to escape Apollo's advances, and the last paragraph of the story refers specifically to "a kiss" after she has transformed. This idea is reflected in the painting, as the woman's legs seem to be sinking into the ground and tendrils of golden Laurel leaves are rooted in the meadow, suggesting her transformation.

Emilie Flöge Theory

It has been suggested that The Kiss may depict Klimt and Emilie Flöge, who was a businesswoman and fashion designer, as well as a close companion to Klimt for 27 years. Their relationship is said to have been an intellectually and emotionally intimate friendship, rather than physical. Some believe the actual life model may have been "Red Hilda," one of Klimt's many lovers and the model for several of his paintings. There has been ongoing debate about the nature of the relationship depicted in the painting, with some seeing it as romantic and others interpreting it as platonic.

If we consider The Kiss as a portrait of Klimt and Flöge, the ambiguity of the relationship in the painting may reflect the ambiguity of their own relationship. In the painting, the man attempts to kiss the woman but she turns her head away, indicating a tenderness and acceptance of affection but also a refusal to comply. The closed eyes and mouth of the woman in The Kiss, which is unusual in Klimt's paintings where women often have open and sexually suggestive mouths, may support the interpretation of a platonic relationship.


Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" was bought by the Austrian government and put on display in one of the Imperial palaces after it was shown in Vienna. Klimt's work was part of the last cultural explosion before the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire and was once considered deviant but now serves as an important role in bridging academic realism and the coming world of abstraction.

Critics may dismiss Klimt as an artist who simply produced "decorative artifice," but his paintings pushed the boundaries of the misunderstood and much maligned erotic and depicted the human figure in a new light. "The Kiss" remains one of the most compelling and truthful images of the 20th century, and we may never truly know Klimt's thoughts on it, but as he once said, "If you want to know about me, just look at my paintings."

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