Few artworks are as adored or widely reproduced as Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907–08). The sumptuous, gilded embrace graces dorm-room posters and $10 T-shirts the world over, but there is much more to the painting’s story than its commercial ubiquity today. When Klimt created his masterpiece at the height of the Viennese avant-garde and its psycho-sexual revolution, it was brazenly erotic, politically charged, and artistically revolutionary.
Klimt was already the fearless leader of the Viennese avant-garde when he began painting The Kiss in 1907. He’d made passionate acolytes of young, ambitious artists like Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, who sought to express raw human feelings. He’d also made bitter enemies of the prudish Austrian art establishment, who balked at the unabashed sensuality and aesthetic decadence of his work.
The painter had come of age in a moment of dramatic cultural transition in Austria. Old-guard arts institutions, inspired by Catholic righteousness and Victorian repression, sought to limit creative expression and sexual freedom. At the same time, intellectuals and artists like Klimt, Sigmund Freud, architect Otto Wagner, and composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg pushed back with work that boldly expressed their impressions of the world around them.
In 1897, Klimt banded together with a group of forward-thinking artists and designers to found the transgressive movement known as the Secession, a word borrowed from an ancient Roman term defined as a “revolt against ruling powers.” They chose a heroic motto to match: “To each age its art, and to art its freedom.” The Secession artists jettisoned the academic style of their predecessors in favor of work that dismantled the boundaries between art and life, and art and design. Increasingly, Klimt’s paintings foregrounded themes like mortality, desire, and psychological inquiry.
Symbolism, allegory, and decoration became a means to veil—albeit thinly—his more radical views. Before The Kiss, the artist explored the life cycle—and the role of sex within it—in several monumental mural projects. In 1900, the University of Vienna commissioned Klimt to create three ceiling paintings on the subjects of philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence. His sprawling composition for Medicine, in particular, scandalized his patrons when he unveiled it. They took particular issue with the tumult of intertwined bodies and glimpses of female pubic hair (unprecedented at the time) that covered the panel, deriding it as pornographic. Klimt eventually pulled out of the project, sending his critics a potent message in the form of a painting called Goldfish (1901–02), which was originally titled To My Critics. In it, a nymph sticks her bare buttocks into the viewer’s face.
In Klimt’s renowned Beethoven Frieze (1902), installed in the Vienna Secession building, he was even more explicit, introducing motifs related to love and sex that would arise in The Kiss. In this metaphorical painting, love is the elixir that triumphs over monstrous evils, releasing humanity from suffering. Its final section, dubbed “The Yearning for Happiness finds fulfillment in Happiness,” shows a couple embracing so rapturously that they read as a single being. A golden ovular form encircles them, emphasizing their union. In art historian Patrick Bade’s reading, the composition is blatantly sexual, equating salvation with physical passion and procreation: “The abstract, decorative surround of the couple suggests fairly explicitly the form of an erect phallus within the surrounding vagina,” he wrote in the 2011 book Gustav Klimt.
By this point in his career, Klimt had embarked on his “Golden Phase”—a period in which he decorated paintings with elaborate swaths of gold leaf, inscribing it with patterns that heightened pictures’ sheen and suggestiveness. (As the son of a goldsmith and engraver, working with the material came naturally to him.) While works like Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) and the Beethoven Frieze incorporated gold, he ramped up his use of the technique after a 1903 trip to Ravenna, Italy, where he encountered the excessive gold tooling and mosaic work of Byzantine art.
Not long after his return to Vienna, Klimt forged the greatest works of his Golden Phase, and arguably of his entire career: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and The Kiss. Both paintings combine gold and silver leaf with swirling patterning that alludes to vigorous life forces and corporeal curves. As art historian Ludwig Hevesi has written, “Klimt’s ornamentation is the figurative expression of primal matter, which is always, without end, in a state of flux, turning and twisting in spirals, entangling itself, a whirlpool that takes on every shape, zebra stripes flashing like lightning, tongues of flame darting forwards, vine tendrils, smoothly linked chains, flowing veils, tender nets.”
In The Kiss,as in the last phase of the Beethoven Frieze, a man and a woman melt into each other. Their bodies are obscured by a thick gold cloak, but Klimt doesn’t hold back from suggesting what lies underneath. A pattern of erect rectangles covers the man, while concentric circles decorate the woman. Again, their individual forms fuse into a single, phallic column, which is shrouded by an oval, vaginal halo. Bade even goes so far as to describe the flowers that cascade down the woman’s side as “spermatozoa-like ornament,” indicating “that the moment of climactic ecstasy has just passed.” Whether or not Klimt was indeed referencing sperm, this patterning certainly illustrates the moments in his work when “the anatomy of the models becomes ornamentation, and the ornamentation becomes anatomy,” as art historian Alessandra Comini has written.
The expression and posture of Klimt’s female subject must be taken into consideration. While some historians have read her craning neck and closed eyes as signs of sexual ecstasy, others have noted that she might be attempting to pull away from the man, who could be seen as trying to overtake or eclipse her. During his life, Klimt held a reputation as a Casanova. More recently, his erotic work—especially his drawings—have been labeled as misogynistic. Still, others have noted how tenderly Klimt depicted this woman, as an angelic protagonist rather than a dangerous femme fatale—a typology explored in many of his other paintings, such as Judith and the Head of Holofernes.
While there is a carnal, deeply human quality to the lovers in The Kiss, Klimt’s expansive use of gold also renders them timeless, almost immortal. “It’s hard not to think of a religious icon,” art historian Dr. Beth Harris has said. “I think in some ways, Klimt was trying to create a modern icon—something that suggested a sense of transcendence.” Ultimately, the painting is a pean to the power of love. “Even though Klimt saw mankind as caught in the inexorable grip of the endless cycle of life and death,” according to the Getty, “he found solace in the life-affirming forces of love and procreation, whose sacred character he celebrated with astonishing poetical force.”
When the painting was exhibited in 1908, at Vienna’s annual “Kunstschau,” it was almost universally celebrated as a masterpiece. Before the exhibition had even closed, Austria’s king purchased it for a whopping sum of 25,000 crowns (the equivalent of about $250,000 today). Klimt’s days as a controversial figure were over, but he hadn’t sacrificed his core beliefs: to express the deep, enduring power of human emotion and desire through art.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.