THE KISS

22 December 2008

[Brassy, rectangular repro of The Kiss by Klimt]Gustav Klimt’s most famous work has to be  “The Kiss”. The first weird thing about this work is that it is square, but it is almost always reproduced rectangularly — and in a variety of garish colours!

Klimt used oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, and did the work around about 1907.  As I said, it is square, but it is also massive, 1800mm each side.  This means that the figures are slightly larger than life size, and the action (the kiss) is slightly above the viewer’s eye level.  It is a shimmering golden thing — and not at all yellow, brassy or as garish as some reproductions would suggest.

[Picture of The Kiss by Gustav Klimt]

For it’s sheer size, the detail is extraordinary, and together with the gold leaf, one cannot help but to draw comparisons with Cimabue.

Yet it is not a religious work, though it uses much of that language and culture.  It is not a classical work, yet it reminds one of Roman mosaics. There is the pagan or Greek flower garlands in the hair, he seems southern European while she seems northern (a redhead with pale skin). Somehow, though, it is still “modern” while being Celtic and having a tribal primitiveness about it. Heck, it even reminds one of the Pre-Raphaelites!

It is far too big to be considered a domestic or private work — therefore it must always have been intended as a large public work of art — but, not being religious or classical, it could only have been intended for the gallery or the corporate foyer.

For being called “The Kiss”, the depiction is such a small percentage of the whole, in fact there is very little flesh on display, very little humanity.  It is an awkward composition, a strange pose, but somehow this painting works.

This is not a violent act, an act of dominance or submission, even though she is kneeling and barefooted.  Her arm around his neck tells that story. This is not the kiss of a relative, a greeting or bidding by a friend or acquaintance.  This is the kiss of a lover — even though it is not on the lips or neck; the hands give that away —  but is it a farewell?  It is parting for ever or for a short while?  Is it, on the other hand the prelude to delicious intimacy?  I personally do not believe that this is an allegorical depiction of betrayal, death or sickness; it is too seductively golden. I once thought it may be of Violetta, that she is sick and dying.  This is the thing with this work — it is difficult to determine from the clues of the background and surrounds.  Is her extremely randomly patterned dress worn off the shoulder, or is this a moment captured — dressing or undressing? I guess Klimt wanted all this to remain a personal interpretation, an ambivalence. I like that one can change one’s mind over the years.

You can make out his robe, the belt banding and his sleeve, but there does seem to be a strange halo surrounding them both that cannot be explained in terms of clothing or fabric, even though it has swirly patterns. The base patterns can be a blanket or a meadow — but the surround seems to be grainy sand. Is it all down to flattened perspectives?

It is memorable, it is remarkable.  It shines, and reflects light onto the faces of the viewers standing in front of its majesty.  This is not a painting as much as an experience.  It lives on after seeing it, burned into the eyes.  It leaves a taste — a trace, a kiss.

It may or may not be typical of the artist, it may or may not have a story or hidden meaning — but none of that matters; the work can stand iconically and recognisably on its own.  Once seen, never forgotten, just like a first kiss, and like the wrapped, golden embrace, it is always a warm and welcome memory.  Wonderful.

I first came across this work in my teens (it was a poster on a girlfriend’s bedroom wall), and I initially didn’t like it; it was too flat, too much, too unbalanced and shapeless, but I recognised it immediately as being of itself, a thing with an identity and personality of its own apart from the artist and its contexts, and that drew me back to it again and again over the years. It’s sui generis. I see it now as the massive golden light source it was intended to be (as opposed to the teatowel or jigsaw puzzle reproduction)! This must really be something to be at in the flesh, what an experience.

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