The Kiss: Gustav Klimt on gender at the turn of the century

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Klimt, Gustav. The KissDer Kuss, 1908. Oil on canvas.  180 x 180 cm.  Belvedere, Wien.

Gustav Klimt’s depiction of a man and woman in an embrace.

Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, Austria in 1862, the eldest son of an immigrant gold engraver from Bohemia.  He studied art at the School of Applied Arts in Vienna alongside his brother, Ernst. Klimt worked initially as a decorative muralist, yet the sudden deaths of his father and brother in 1892 triggered a withdrawal from society during which Klimt’s art became increasingly eccentric.  He became obsessive about privacy, never married, and had several illicit affairs; he was rumored to have fathered fourteen illegitimate children.  These factors manifested in his efforts to oppose the status quo throughout his oeuvre by using new painting techniques, and allegorical symbolism of life and death.  Klimt’s personal life also engendered his preoccupation with portraying women as sexual beings, thereby illustrating the paradoxical gender roles at the turn of the century.  These elements are all relevant in Klimt’s most famous work: The Kiss.

In The Kiss, a couple is shown embracing in a field of flowers.  The man is bent over the woman, who clings to him tightly as she waits for his kiss.  The male figure is distinguished by square and rectangular shapes on his gold clothing, while the female is ornamented with soft lines and a floral pattern. A delicate, golden halo envelops the couple, which creates a sacred atmosphere in the painting.  Yet, the female’s toes are sharply bent and rooted into the ground; she appears to be constrained by the golden flowers in the meadow.  It is also interesting to note that while the gold flowers wrap around the female’s ankles and legs, the flowers beneath the male are much shorter, less invasive, and multi-colored.

The depiction of the male as dominant to the female, by being bent over her, is in alignment with the Romantic, 19th century social constructs for how a man and wife should interact.  Moreover, it was a common perspective that men were the dominant gender and heads of the home, as well as leaders in the political sphere.  Women were seen merely as angels of the home, and the ideal woman was soft, gentle, and subservient.  One should also note that the dark, sharp, structured shapes on the male’s clothing contrasted by the delicate flowers on the female’s clothes seem to follow the Romantic gender mold exactly.  The woman’s constraints in the meadow further emphasize her servitude to the male; in a way she is his slave.  The golden halo around the couple is also centered on the female, which seems to suggest that she is the angelic human, who is simply bringing the male into her blissful atmosphere.

Yet, upon closer examination you notice that not everything fits the Romantic gender mold.  The woman is not only clinging to the man, but pulling him to her.  She also appears to be intensely enjoying the moment.  Thus, it can be argued that she, in fact, is the seductress in this situation.  There is also no evidence that the couple is married. Though Klimt did not use nudity in this particular painting, he still uses many of his trademarks; the woman is sexualized, and the halo juxtaposed with the woman’s constraints in the meadow can be interpreted as an allegorical representation of life and death.  Klimt’s painting techniques also differentiate this work from that of the previous century.

Ultimately, what initially appears to be a representation of Romantic ideals is in fact a rejection of those principles and art forms.  Klimt’s The Kiss is thus an iconic Modernist piece, challenging every gender ideal and social construct from the preceding time period.
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The Kiss: Gustav Klimt on gender at the turn of the century is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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