The painting "The Kiss" from 1908/09 is undoubtedly Klimt's best-known work today.
A pair of lovers, kneeling on a flower meadow and wearing lavish golden robes, seem to be floating before an infinite cosmos of golden fog. This mystical backdrop further enhances the transcendental effect of the painting.
The lovers' bodies are joined together in a single contour. Only the faces and hands of the two figures are visible in vivid detail, as well as the shoulders and feet of the woman. The rest of her body is covered by flat decorative elements.
The ornamental shapes on the woman's dress—round, colorful patterns and floral elements—express softness and tenderness. Different-colored flowers adorn her hair and face and emphasize her feminine and loving nature.
The man is covered by rectangular, contrasting black-and-white structures which convey a masculine angularity and strength. The ornamental shapes in Klimt's painting therefore also symbolize the principles of the sexes.
Klimt creates the image of a perfect union between man and woman with both merging together. Here, man and woman connect with the earth and the cosmos, guided by the power holding everything together: love.
The identity of the two people in the painting "The Kiss" is often debated. Klimt himself made no statement on the subject.
Many suspect that it is a self-portrait of the artist together with his lifelong partner, Emilie Flöge.
Emilie Flöge was a confident, modern woman who ran a successful fashion salon in Vienna together with her sisters. She was by Klimt's side in all official outings.
The scene could be reminiscent of those halcyon days in their holiday home on the Attersee, where Gustav and Emilie spent each summer.
The flower meadow where the couple are kneeling would therefore be the shore of the Attersee. This would also explain why the meadow ends so abruptly on the right.
The strange creeping vines gliding gently over the lovers' legs could reflect the algae and aquatic plants of the Attersee.
Similarly, the background of the painting could refer to the surface of the Attersee, where the sunlight is reflected and split into a multitude of tiny glimmers.
Going against this assumption, however, is the fact that there is no evidence in any biographical sources that Klimt wanted to capture himself and his partner in this painting. Moreover, Klimt did not create any portraits of himself in general.
Maybe he didn't intend to capture any real people in this painting at all. Instead, this painting may be understood as a general allegory of love, making a universally valid statement on this central theme of human life.
The fact that Klimt managed to perfectly convey this message—connecting with art lovers directly and emotionally—is evidenced by the painting's worldwide fame and almost iconic status.
Klimt probably began painting "The Kiss" in 1907. When he presented it at the "Kunstschau" in the summer of 1908 under the title Liebespaar (Lovers), it immediately became the main attraction and was purchased by the Austrian Ministry of Education while the exhibition was still ongoing.
Before actually delivering the painting, Klimt would make a few more changes to it, presumably up until 1909.
An early photo documents the initial state of the painting.
In the earlier version, it is clear to see that the lower legs of the lovers were originally shorter. The flower meadow was more embellished in the earlier version.
In the final version, Klimt placed many more creeping vines over the lower legs of the lovers than in the original version.
The picture would then be displayed at the 1911 International Exhibition of Art in Rome.
At this exhibition, the painting already had the title "The Kiss"—a name that remains inseparable from the picture.
The painting is undoubtedly the most significant work of Klimt's so-called "Golden Phase." In these paintings, Klimt developed a completely new and almost unique technique that allowed him to apply real, wafer-thin gold leaf onto the canvas.
Gold leaf and a shining golden bronze color blend into a single entity that shines and shimmers magnificently. With this, Klimt delivered an outstanding, innovative contribution to the European Art Nouveau.
In the painting "The Kiss," the garments worn by the pair of lovers are not the only things covered with gold leaf. The background, looking like a cosmic nebula with its fine gold flakes, transports the lovers into a completely different reality.
In addition to gold leaf, Klimt also applied fine silver flakes to some areas of the painting.
As for why Klimt was so interested in gold, we can only speculate. Klimt could have drawn some early inspiration from his family home, where Klimt's father worked as a gold engraver.
The two trips Klimt took to Venice and Ravenna in 1903, where he admired the medieval gold mosaics in the cathedrals and churches, would have certainly been a source of inspiration.
Franz Smola, Belvedere Vienna