During a recent trip to Vienna I photographed Gustav Klimt’s famous Kiss painted on a street corner. In the center of the city, souvenir shops display massive numbers of postcards, posters, scarves, crockery and other souvenirs decorated with the image of this painting, and now there is also a Street Art version on the corner of Hernstorferstraße 12. What makes this painted kiss so attractive, so desirable?
First of all Gustav’s Kiss is a very intimate one. We see a blonde woman sitting on her knees, in the arms of a dark-haired man. He is tilting her neck with his hands and kissing her cheek. The woman embraces the man, her one hand around his neck, her other hand on one of his hands.
Where is this couple situated? In the original semi-abstract representation they stand on the edge of an abyss, in a field full of flowers. It is not known whether Klimt had a symbolic intention, but you might interpret it as a secret kiss. Klimt made the painting in Vienna in 1907/8 and was influenced by the then prevailing sexual morality. People were averse to sexuality in public, but prostitution was good business. Because Klimt often painted intimate performances, he was seen as a controversial figure, and The Kiss was generally seen as an image of lust and /or love.
Why is this Kiss so desirable?
When you think of all forms of intimacy, a kiss is perhaps the most erotic. A kiss is the seal of a pronounced or unspoken understanding. It symbolizes a ‘liking each other’ or ‘finding each other attractive’, and it is electrified with a tension ‘hanging in the air’. Even though Klimt’s famous Kiss is just a kiss on the cheek it’s filled with intense emotion and passion. But how do we know this? I think it is because of the visible skin of both figures, the touching of the hands and the posture of the woman’s head, with the neck exposed.
Street art inspired by the Kiss Photo by Bella Kotak
The almost abstract representation shows little skin. Both bodies are largely covered by clothes – the man wearing a dressing gown decorated with angular symbols and the woman a robe with circular symbols. But the incarnate (the skin surface) that is visible, suggests touching. Not an embracing or a holding, but a tender touching. In addition, the tilted head of the woman, with her cheeks pink from excitement, is one we know from art history. Just think of the statue of Saint Theresia of Bernini made for Santa Maria della Vittoria. In Christian terms, Theresia is depicted in ‘ecstasy’, but in our current terminology this would be called an orgasm. This image has also gained fame in Street Art, as we all know, portrayed by Christian Guémy, who has portrayed this fiery saint several times. The tilted head, the closed eyes – everything points to the woman’s surrender. And even in other ‘Kisses’ depicted by Guémy you see the tilted head.
As you can see below, this posture of surrender closely resembles that in many ‘stills’ of old Dracula movies, in which the woman often throws her head back or sideways to expose her neck, and surrenders with her eyes closed. Not so much overpowered but in longing, so it seems.
In the end, in art, a good kiss – whether it is given by a man, a woman, a god or a vampire – is one that embodies consensual desire.