March 8, 2021

from a gesture of ‘sacred’ love to the anger of the Church


Gustav Klimt paced his Viennese study in a robe. Around him, canvases, palettes, brushes, paints … and women. This is how the art historian explains it Sara rubayo: “I painted them, I portrayed them and some I also loved them.” It seems indisputable that Klimt possessed an eccentric personality. He had three legitimate children and, at his death, up to 14 women claimed the painter’s paternity for their respective offspring. Four were tested. Klimt lived with his mother and unmarried sisters, painted pictures that brought the bourgeoisie of the time headlong – who considered them, on many occasions, ugly – and had a clear inclination to paint sexual scenes. However, the symbolist is remembered neither for his peculiar life nor for his eccentricity. Instead, he is remembered for being the author of one of the most important works in the entire History of Art, as well as a global production of extraordinary value. With The kiss (1907-1908), Klimt reconciled with the elite of the Austrian capital, who approved the canvas, and became even more at odds with the Church, which did not like that Gustav raised an act of love, such as a kiss, to the category of sacred.

The success he reaped with The kiss It came to Klimt like May water. “He was immersed in a considerable emotional and economic crisis,” says Rubayo. “Not long ago,” he continues, “I had done a job for the University of Vienna that I hadn’t liked at all.” The kissInstead, it aroused such emphatic admiration that the Viennese government was quick to buy it even before it was completely finished. Only the Church objected. This is because Klimt used two techniques for his painting that, to date, as the historian explains, were practically exclusive to religious art. On the one hand, he uses the so-called gold leaf, thin sheets of gold and silver that he had fallen in love with after contemplating them on his trip to Ravenna, Italy. On the other, the great neutral background that the painting presents “is also a technique that was put into practice to exemplify the greatness of God.” However, the religious community was not satisfied with Klimt’s work, although that did not in any way detract from the success and fame of the painting.

“It is a mysterious work,” Rubayo comments: “We all think we know what we are seeing, but in reality, we have no idea.” To begin with, it is not clear who the two protagonists of the scene are. While there is some agreement among experts that the man is Klimt himself, there are serious doubts about the woman. Some say that it is about Emilie Flöge, a famous designer of the time and friend of the artist. Others identify the female character with Adele Bloch-Bauer, a more than likely Klimt lover who had already posed for him in other portraits. Finally, there are also those who see in women Red Hilda, a regular model in the painter’s paintings. “Klimt’s predilection for redheads was known to all,” jokes Rubayo. If anything, the mystery of The kiss It begins with its characters, but it does not end with them. “You have to take into account,” he remembers, “that it is a symbolist work.”

A hard kiss to classify

As in any symbolist work, nothing that Klimt included in the composition is trivial or casual. In other words, everything has a meaning. Without going any further, all the geometric shapes that the artist includes in the man’s tunic are rectangular –reminiscent of the male gender–, while those that he draws on her clothes are circular, alluding to the female gender. On the other hand there is her face. Around that there is debate. “Is it a consensual kiss or is it not?” Asks the historian. Rubayo looks at the gesture on the woman’s face and asks a question that, today, has no answer. It goes without saying, on the other hand, that the painting is enigmatic also in its mission. The kiss scene should be optimistic, something like the triumph of love. However, “many historians consider the fact of placing the couple at the end of an ascending line that breaks into a kind of abyss a metaphor for the instability of couple relationships.”

In short, Klimt rose from the ashes with a work as beautiful as it was mysterious. It enjoyed acceptance at the same time it was presented and its projection has only grown to date. Today, it has even crossed the frontier of the mainstream, being one of the most stamped paintings on t-shirts, mugs, cushions and all kinds of ‘merchandising’. That eccentric man ended up painting a picture that everyone likes, but that no one can fully understand because, for this, they would have to be in Klimt’s own head and that, for the moment, is impossible.

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