The iconic painting by Gustav Klimt, called “The Kiss” has been reproduced so many times that we feel we know it well. In fact, I have seen posters of it on the walls of so many college dorm rooms that in my mind the image represents an adolescent view of passion – tight as ticks under a quilt, wrapped up in each other, inseparable, divorced from the world. It seems at once insular and infinite.
But as always, taking in the vibrancy of a real painting – as opposed to its multiple reproductions – yields surprises. Having not been in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna for nearly ten years, I was recently able to stand before this enormous work again. I don’t think I ever noticed before that the couple is standing on a precipice. In fact in their position, with the man standing and holding the woman, and she kneeling, all he would have to do is lean backwards just slightly, and over they would both go, into an abyss – for who knows what lies beyond their narrow little strip of grass? And what is keeping them steady? Why, her toes, hooked over the edge.
Man as danger, woman as anchor? He of the air, she of the earth? Seems rather traditional for the adventurous times of Viennese Jugendstil, but perhaps the roles of the players are less important to the work than its expression of erotic intensity. In fact, their individual features, faces, arms, legs, are somewhat blurred and blended into the abstract designs that swirl around them. As entities they do not exist – they are mere participants in a mass of sensual energy. And bedecked as they are in gold, shining, opulent, they no longer seem to be mere flesh. The private has become something ceremonial, even liturgical, and at the same time utterly profane.
So the word “icon” applied to this painting is perhaps not as far from the mark as it might appear. Is Mr. Klimt giving us only a fleeting glimpse of ecstasy, gilded in time? Or do we see something here about the risk inherent in the opening and giving of onself? The couple he portrays is blissfully unaware of their precarious position, even as we viewers cannot miss it.
To be human is to know the divinity of passion, how it can subsume and eliminate self, time, space and the world. Within the innermost bounds of physical love is an eternity that is at once unrestrained and dangerous. The world is without, and within is only the experience. As adults, though, we also know that there are ever consequences to our actions and choices, and therein lies the mystery and depth of this work. One dares to fling oneself into that intimate maelstrom, and the artist reminds us is that the precipice is there, waiting.
©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.