One of the most loved paintings in the world is Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-8), aka The Lovers. Sometimes I’m in agreement with this — Edvard Munich’s Scream and Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. It was bought by the Austrian Gallery before it was completed, originally shown at the Lower Belvedere and in the Upper Belvedere since then.
This canvas is nice, but it doesn’t quite do it for me. I saw a load of Klimt drawings alongside works by Egon Schiele at the Royal Academy of Arts, but Schiele won. He was, however, key to a generation of Viennese artists before the end of the First World War.
Central to the painting are two figures, a man and a woman, the former towering over the kneeling latter, his lips over her right cheek. Both are clothed in extravagant patchwork cloaks, as if they are merging into each other, glowing with the gold and silver flecks Klimt has mixed into the oils. Behind them is what I read as a star field, although it fills the right side of the canvas as if they are standing on some kind of hillock. The hillock is a mix of colours, the almost mosaic like pattern of foliage and flowers seen in other paintings of the period by the artist.
They look like refugees from Abigail’s Party.
What worries me is his hands, one on her throat and chin, the other behind her head. It’s as if she’s being held in place. And why is she on her knees?
In the ecstasy of desire, the bodily boundaries may vanish, we become part of the universe and infinity enters into us. I confess I feel disturbed more than uplifted.
And I was happier to see two Munch paintings nearby, Paul Herrmann and Paul Contard (1897) and Bathing Men (1907), the latter a precursor to the version I saw in Helsinki. Indeed, there’s also a nice treescape, Early Spring (1900).
A few hours later, I was in the Batliner Collection of the Albertine, with a Munch Winter Landscape (1915), alongside a lithograph, Madonna (1895/1902), and woodcuts Melancholy III (1902), Girl on the Pier (1918), The Lonely Ones (1899) and The Kiss IV (1902), all part of the Albertina collection.
Of course, the name chimed today of all days, although I will have seen other versions, possibly even other imprints of The Kiss. We have a man kissing a woman, with a sense that the two bodies are merging. In some versions the kissers are naked, in others they are in front of a (bedroom?) window. Was Munch inspired by Klimt?, I wondered.
Munich’s earliest Kiss was around 1888; their arms are wrapped around each other, holding each other, with their faces merging to varying degrees. For Munch we know this is lightly to be part of his sense of melancholia and angst, with an ambiguity between a love based unity and an absorbed loss of individuality. In the Albertine version there is, also, the foregrounding of the wood grain, a legacy of the carved block. The tool becomes part of the form. It almost looks like a sprayed design, a Banksy a century before its time.
Of course, there are any other number of kisses — Auguste Rodin’s various sculptures, The Kiss (1882), part of The Gates of Hell, although there is less merging there. And earlier still, Francesco Hayez’s 1859 painting. Again, the two bodies there are distinct.
But Klimt remains the most famous, the most loved … the most sparkly.
And then, a couple of days later, I saw another kiss. But that’s another story…