Gustav Klimt’s ‘Golden Epoch’ reached its peak with The Kiss (1907-1908). Perhaps European art as a whole at the end of the 19th Century finds its most complete expression in this grand, erotic painting. It has become one of the most famous pictures in history, being reproduced and parodied everywhere from The Simpsons to contemporary videogames.
The painting is finished with real silver and gold-leaf. This kind of opulence was typical of fin-de-siecle art. Klimt saw a link between erotic human feeling and luxuriant materials, so his work at the time became glutted with precious stuff.
The painting is in tension between two-dimensions and three-dimensions. The swirls of paint physically stand out on the canvas. But in a pictorial sense, the garments collapse into the surface, flattened, whilst the more subtle use of paint on the lovers’ skin gives them the 3-D quality of more classical oil paintings. This conflict between different genres and art-historical periods helped define modern painting.
In the early 1900s, Klimt created a puzzling, ornamental, encoded programme that revolved around the mystery of existence, love and fulfilment through art.
Klimt gained initial inspiration for this in 1903 on a journey to Ravenna to see the Byzantine mosaics. In addition, the painting contains a myriad of motifs from various cultural epochs, above all from Ancient Egyptian mythology.
Most recent research has, however, revealed that it is not enough to read the ornaments in the picture just as symbols rooted in tradition aiming to convey a timelessly valid message. They reveal more, such as references to Klimt’s love for Emilie Flöge and the artist’s exploration of the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s art.
The Kiss was first exhibited in 1908 at the Kunstschau art exhibition on the site of today’s Konzerthaus. The Ministry bought it from there for the sum of 25,000 Kronen and thus secured for the state one of the icons of Viennese Jugendstil and indeed of European modern art. It undoubtedly represents the culmination of the phase known as the “Golden Epoch”.
The Kiss by Gustav KlimtBelvedere