14 December 2013

Art for Advent (14): ‘The
Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of art for Advent this morning [14 December 2013] is The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. This painting is a masterpiece of the early modern period.

I sometimes wonder whether we are confident enough of the love of God, or whether we are frightened by the intimacy God offers us in the promises of Advent.

I am not suggesting that the love of God is erotic. But I often think we are too afraid of intimacy with God, and that an appropriate awe of the majesty of God is sometimes replaced by fear and distance.

I am overwhelmed by the love of God, and am often at a loss to find the words to express that. I have no idea of how consuming it is going to be at the Advent or Second Coming. But why do we not find ways of expressing that hope that move beyond fear and distance to intimacy and immediacy?

The Kiss was painted by Gustav Klimt , the leading Austrian Symbolist painter in 1908-1909, at the high point of his “Golden Period,” when he painted a number of works in a similar gilded style.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was an Austrian symbolist painter and the most prominent member of the Vienna Secession movement. His primary subject was the female body, and his work is marked by a frank eroticism.

The Kiss is painted on a canvas that is a perfect square, 180 cm × 180 cm. We see a kissing, embracing couple whose bodies are entwined in elaborate robes decorated in a style influenced by both the Art Nouveau style and the earlier Arts and Crafts movement.

The two are locked in intimacy, while the rest of the painting dissolves into a shimmering, extravagant flat pattern, lost on the edge of a patch of flowery meadow.

Klimt painted The Kiss with oil and applied layers of gold leaf that give the painting its strikingly modern, yet evocative, appearance.

The painting is now in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere museum in the Belvedere Palace, Vienna. It is a symbol of Vienna Jugendstil – Viennese Art Nouveau – and is Klimt’s most popular work. It earned Klimt his reputation as an enfant terrible, yet it was received enthusiastically.

It is so popular that it is impossible for visitors to Vienna to avoid finding copies of it everywhere – on postcards, mugs, cheap prints, chocolate wrappings, and cheap souvenirs. Yet it continues to fascinate and enthrall in a way that gives it iconic status.

The use of gold leaf recalls mediaeval “gold-ground” paintings and illuminated manuscripts. But other influences may include Japanese prints. However, I like to think that Klimt’s use of gold was inspired by a visit to Italy in 1903, when he visited Ravenna and saw the Byzantine mosaics in the Church of San Vitale, where the flatness of the mosaics and their lack of perspective and depth enhances their golden brilliance.

And all this may help to explain why so many people feel there is an iconic quality to this painting.

Tomorrow:Christ in Majesty’ by John Piper.

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