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K is for 'The Kiss' by Klimt

This painting is Klimt’s most popular work and a favourite of the friend who helps me write this blog (due to my dyslexia). It is loved by many, this painting of the two lovers in a golden embrace. Personally, I have mixed feelings about it. I have not seen the painting in ‘real life’ but gather that, at 6ft by 6ft, it has a powerful presence in Vienna’s Austrian Gallery.

Klimt himself cut a somewhat controversial figure and this, I think, affects my view. Can we separate the artist from their art? Klimt lived with his mother for most of his life but had a bohemian lifestyle, fathering 14 children by many different women. It is not surprising to learn that Freud was a near contemporary of his, as Klimt shows influences of his interest in the unconscious and in instinctual drives. In this age, which was just post-Victorian, Klimt's sensual images (some of which were frankly erotic) were just too much for many.

He began as a successful, conventional painter of architectural decorations. He was commissioned with his brother to paint murals to embellish the fine buildings erected near the Ring Strasse, a tree-lined boulevard in the heart of Vienna. All his life he believed that decorative art and fine art should be seen as having equal value. ‘The Kiss’, however, was created after a dismal failure in his life as his works became more avant-garde. He had been commissioned to complete a series known as the Vienna Ceiling Paintings in the first decade of the 20th Century. These were for the University of Vienna’s Great Hall but they were rejected by the commissioners as pornographic and never installed. Thankfully, he had a wealthy patron who was happy to repay the 30,000 gold crowns he had been paid in advance commission.

From this time onwards he accepted no public commissions and moved into what is sometimes referred to as his ‘golden phase’ using gold leaf frequently in his work. The Kiss is part of this era which was also affected by the sudden death of his father and brother. The painting itself is rare in that it includes a man and a woman whereas many of his works are of a woman alone. Both his subjects are clothed in a two dimensional gold blanket, showing both the influence of his father’s career as a goldsmith and the influence of Japanese prints. Like Monet he had an interest in all things Japanese. The rectangles give the male lover’s robe a more masculine motif, the circles represent the feminine.

My friend loves this work because of its tenderness and rich colours. For me, I am not sure what to make of it. Maybe his personal life affects me here. It suggests he was afraid of intimacy but obsessed with the erotic, and his lack of emotional commitment to the mothers of his children would have made for a hard life for them and his many offspring. It is this factor which, most of all, makes this a painting I have never been drawn to.

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