Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss: Not Just Human Sensuality Adorned with Gold

Elena Chang

Despite the grey, cloudy Viennese weather, the last room of the Belvedere Museum’s Austrian Gallery shimmers a soft gold. Upon entering the baroque-style space decorated with prestigious Viennese painters’ works, soft lights illuminate a singular painting: Gustav Klimt’s renowned The Kiss. Over 6 feet in length and width, the painting hangs on a prominent wall between two large brown doors. From the kneeling woman’s blushing cheeks, to the towering man’s rough fingers, this painting embodies the art of detail. The Kiss‘s contrasts reminds audiences that life itself is a study of contradictions, as viewers attempt to demystify the actions of the lovers only to realize that the nature of their romance will forever remain unknown.

At first look, aspects of the artwork such as the woman’s slipping dress and the tight proximity of the couple makes The Kiss seem on the edge of eroticism. This near-eroticism that Klimt conveys can be seen as a response to a scandal he was ensnared in prior to painting The Kiss. In 1894, Klimt was commissioned to paint three works for the ceiling of the University of Vienna. These pieces exhibited sexual depictions of his figures that scandalized the public and were thus removed. However, these ceiling paintings communicated the bubbling rise of a new era. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Vienna Secession, which emphasized modernity and idiosyncrasy, was taking off, and Klimt was one of its main pundits. Following this startling scandal, Klimt’s creation of The Kiss represented a bridge between the classical art of the past and the modern Symbolist and Vienna Secessionist movements as it teetered on the edge of raw sensuality and restrained art. By navigating the artistic movements of his time, Klimt created a masterpiece that allows audiences to reflect on the nature of the subjects’ love. 

The Kiss is not merely a loud statement embellished with dazzling golds and silvers— it is an evocative mystery of one of the most simple yet profound concepts— love. 

The Kiss further emphasizes the juxtaposition between the man and the woman through their clothing.  The man wears a geometrically-patterned robe accentuated with black triangles, emphasizing masculinity, while the woman’s floral printed dress and golden swirls surrounding her suggests femininity. These contrasting forces are reconciled by the lovers’ tight embrace and the eye-catching bright gold hues of the painting, suggesting that everlasting love may be the focus of this piece. The two seem so passionate, so enamored, that the fact that they are teetering on the edge of a cliff is disregarded, adding an element of uncertainty to the work. 

The mystery that shrouds The Kiss is what is so attractive about it. The painting could be interpreted as the vulnerability of a smitten woman, a reciprocated romance between a couple, or a sensual affair. The unnatural position of the woman and the harsh placement of the man’s hands juxtaposes the woman’s serene expression, making the viewers question the nature of the subjects’ relationship. Surely, Klimt is depicting love, but these stark contrasts throughout the artwork suggest that love is esoteric and individualized to the lovers themselves. Love goes beyond something rational. It is something mystical and mysterious, which is what makes The Kiss so enchanting.