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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (29/10/2023)

(Review of Exhibition on Screen: Klimt & The Kiss)


There's no shortage of films about Gustav Klimt and his most iconic images. John Malkovich played the Austrian symbolist in Raúl Ruiz's Klimt (2006), while the postwar reclamation of works appropriated by the Nazis informs both Jane Chablani's Stealing Klimt (2007) and Simon Curtis's Woman in Gold (2015). The latest entry in the excellent Exhibition on Screen series, Klimt & The Kiss centres on a single picture and, thus, follows in the footsteps of John Bush's 2005 entry on `The Kiss' in the 29-part BBC series, The Private Life of a Masterpiece (2001-10).

Painted in 1907 and exhibited unfinished the following year, `The Kiss' has a cinematic life of its own. Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell view it at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing (1980), while it's on display in a private collection visited by Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine in McG's This Means War (2012). It also catches the eye of Professor Henry Jones (Lloyd Owen) in a glass display in the `Vienna, November 1908' episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93). As newlyweds Barbara Sukowa and Armin Mueller-Stahl kiss in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lola (1981), a poster of the painting is visible on the wall and Joss Wheedon would comment on the ubiquity of these reproductions in `The Freshman', a 1999 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1999-2003). Lena Dunham makes much the same joke in Tiny Furniture (2010). But why has this image of entwined lovers left such a deep and lasting impression?

While acknowledging that `The Kiss' (1907-09) is a difficult picture to decipher, Dr Sabine Wieber, Senior Lecturer in Art and Design at the University of Glasgow, likes the fact that it makes demands on the viewer. Dr Ivan Rustic, the curator of the Leopold Museum in Vienna, concurs that it asks questions, as there are issues of consent around the embrace, while the fact that the kissing couple are standing on the edge of an abyss adds some narrative mystery to the modernist chic.

Dr Franz Smola, the curator of the Belvedere Museum notes that the galleries were founded to exhibit modern art and that `The Kiss' was an expensive acquisition at 25,000 kronen. But, while he was one of the most expensive artists of his day, Klimt was something of an enigma, as Oxford cultural historian Dr Janina Ramirez explains. Despite living with his mother and sisters, he remained aloof from Viennese society and his work reflected his refusal to be bound by convention.

Stephanie Auer, a curator at the Belvedere, agrees that `The Kiss' is very much a product of his time and, as we see Wilhelm Gause's `Ball of the City of Vienna' (1904), cultural historian Gavin Plumley confirms that the Hapsburg capital at the turn of the century was an artistic, musical, and intellectual hub. But Wieber notes that it also had a darker side, with poverty, hunger, and prejudice chipping away at the veneer of imperial might and majesty.

Sandra Tretter, deputy director of the Klimt Foundation, reveals that Gustav Klimt had been born the second of seven children in the suburb of Baumgarten on 14 July 1862. Seen in `Gustav Klimt's Father in Traditional Dutch Dress' (1892), Ernst Klimt was a gold engraver, but money was always short after he lost a fortune during the 1873 financial crisis. Siblings Ernst, Jr. and Georg were also talented artists, who undertook portraits and graphic work to provide for the family. Over `Portrait of Gustav Klimt's Sister Hermine in Profile to the Left' (1887-88), Dr Marian Bisanz-Prakken, the former curator of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, explains how he studied architectural painting at the Kunstgewerbeschule, where anatomical works such as `Male Nude' (1880) set him apart from other students.

Plumley points out how the school echoed the concerns of Britain's Arts and Crafts Movement and Gustav and Ernst teamed with Franz Matsch to accept commissions like the ceiling of the Burgtheater in the newly constructed Ringstrasse. Reflecting bourgeois tastes, the Old Italian Art and Greek Antiquity murals in the Kunsthistorisches Museum might have little in common with Klimt's later work, but they made his fame and fortune in the late 1880s. However, as Smola explains, they contributed to a creative crisis that brought about a complete change of style that resulted in the likes of Klimt's Faculty Paintings, which were commissioned by the University of Vienna in 1900, completed in 1907, and lost in a fire in 1945. Willing to experiment and provoke, he emerged as an Art Nouveau (or Jugendstil) painter in 1897.

Plumley and Ramirez go on to discuss the Wiener Secession, a manifesto-free group of Austrian artists that was formed in 1897 to

create immersive works that encompassed painting, sculpture, and architecture. The group also sought to provide an exhibition space for young artists and Joseph Maria Olbrich's Secession Building still bears the motto above the pavilion entrance, `To every age its art, to every art its freedom.'

A major Klimt work hanging there is `Pallas Athene' (1898), the Greek goddess of art, wisdom, and just causes who was the symbol of the movement. Plumley suggests it aims a satirical dig at the statue of the same figure outside the Parliament Building. He also notes the inclusion of `Nuda Veritas' and the background symbols of conflict, which reflect Klimt's assertion that he was living in an age of struggle. However, Ramirez is right to mention similar artistic movements across Europe, while Rustic attests that works from France, Belgium, and elsewhere were included in the twice yearly Secessionist shows.

A dedicated provocateur, Klimt often ruffled the most feathers and Smola considers the 1902 Beethoven exhibition to have been the most contentious. Among the pieces was a statue by Max Klinger and Klimt's `Beethoven Frieze' (1901-02), which Secession Building curator Annette Südbeck links to the movement's ethos of `Gesamtkunstwerk' or total art. The latter was a rumination on the 9th Symphony and art historian Patrick Bade explains that the composer had broken the mould by adding the poetry of `Ode to Joy' to a symphonic piece. By so doing, he had anticipated the Secessionist advocacy of the fusion of artforms and Klimt celebrates this in his frieze.

As the music plays, Südbeck guides us through the journey from the dark side of life to paradise and highlights the couple embracing under an arch topped with a cupola similar to the one atop the Secession Building. The camera roves over the details of the paradise segment, with Bisanz-Prakken concluding that Klimt's focus on kissing nudes suggests how highly he valued love in the grand scheme of human existence.

In 2023, the Belvedere hosted the `Klimt Inspired By...Exhibition' and curator Dr Marcus Fellinger alludes to some of the influences on `The Kiss', including the myth of Dionysus and Ariadne, medieval icons, and Japanese art. Elsewhere, Henri Matisse's `The Girl With Green Eyes' (1908) can be seen in the unfinished `Johanna Staude' (1917-18), Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's `Divan Japonais' (1892-93) in `Lady With a Plumed Hat' (1908), and John Singer Sargent's `Study of Madame Gautreau' (c.1884) in `Portrait of a Woman' (c.1898). The atmosphere of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh's `June Roses' (1898) can also be detected in `Girlfriends (Water Serpents I)' (1904; reworked 1907-08), while the female figures in her `Embroidered Panels' (c.1902-04) and in Dutch Symbolist Jan Toorop's `The Three Brides' (1892-93) resemble those in the heavenly choir in the `Beethoven Frieze'.

Echoes of James McNeill Whistler's `Harmony in White and Blue' (1872-74) are evident in Klimt's `Portrait of Hermine Gallia' (1904), while `Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1' (1871) impacted upon `Sonja Knips' (1897-98). Seemingly, he only became aware of the Impressionists in the 1890s, but `Flowering Poppies' (1907) owes much to Claude Monet's `Poppy Field in a Hollow Near Giverny' (1885), while Vincent Van Gogh's `Orchard in Blossom' (1889) shapes `Avenue to Schloss Kammer' (1912). Despite the similarities, however, Fellinger insists that Klimt put his own stamp on the style and that his works are always identifiably unique.

Stefanie Jahn, head of the Belvedere Conservation Department, reveals that `The Kiss' was painted on canvas and is unusual in being square. The picture was X-rayed in 2016 and yellow lines show the outlines of the original charcoal sketch. Jahn and conservator Barbara Steiner also show how Klimt adapted the Japanese Urushi lacquer technique to apply the brass leaf and metallic flecks to the background. According to Jahn, the additions make the painting radiate emotion and spirituality.

Plumley takes up the idea that the name `Klimt' is synonymous with gold, thanks to `The Kiss' and `Adele Bloch-Bauer II' (1907). But he picks out the gold in pictures like `Judith' (1901) and `Life Is a Struggle (The Golden Knight)' (1908), which Wieber confirms were from his `Golden Phase', in which he jettisoned the three-dimensional spaces seen in Renaissance works like Raphael's `School of Athens' (1509-11) to explore two-dimensional spaces that he flattened and filled with shapes, layers, and textures. As Plumley states, other Secessionists were influenced by Byzantine icons like `St John Chrysostom of Antioch' (c.10th-11th century). But `The Kiss' stands out from the crowd to the extent it has become an icon for its age.

Bisanz-Prakken links `The Kiss' to a series of other Klimt paintings depicting the love between men and women, such as `Adam and Eve' (1916-18). She notes how the male figure in `The Kiss' feels active, toned, and tanned compared to the impassive, pale, and stylised female, who has so withdrawn into herself that her eyes are closed. Auer contrasts the rectangular blocks on the man's clothes with the curved shapes and flowers on the kneeling woman's gown, which were designed to make her seem closer to Nature. Klimt experimented with poses in sketches like `Standing Lovers Embracing Man With Cape' and `Standing Pair of Lovers Seen From the Side' (both 1907-08), which Bisanz-Prakken feel show him striving to capture the essence of love.

While admitting that the identity of the models for `The Kiss' are unknown, Wieber hopes they are Klimt and longtime companion and muse, Emilie Flöge. Twelve years his junior, she was a sibling of his sister-in-law and a champion of the new, corset-free fashions worn by society sitters like Fritza Riedler, whom Klimt painted in 1906. Tretter finds their relationship fascinating because it's not certain whether there was ever a romantic connection, even though he wrote her long letters that confided intimate thoughts and painted her portrait in 1902. Yet, they never married and he fathered 14 children with his models. Bode avers that he also slept with his high-society patrons, while Boris Alakus from the Klimt Villa admits that he cast away pregnant partners and used everyone from his mother and sisters to satisfy practical and physical needs.

The camera lingers over details in `Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi' (1903), `Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein' (1905), `Adele Bloch-Bauer I' (1907), `Mäda Primavesi' (1912-13), and `Amalie Zuckerkandl' (1917-18), as Auer declares that Klimt's depiction of women differed according to their social status. Wieber says Klimt painted portraits to earn a living, but experimented with the form, as did Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka after him. But Plumley wonders why there were odd elements like the monster in the gloom in `Sonja Knips' and why he felt the need to flatter his subject while making his own eccentric statements.

Auer explains that Klimt had no interest in capturing a sitter's personality. They were merely the human component of an artistic design. But studio sketches like `Two Reclining Nudes' (1905-06), `Reclining Nude' (1914-15), and `Reclinging Nude With Drapery Back View' (1917-18) reveal a more attentive intimacy, as they were often young, working-class country girls who had come to the capital seeking work. Alakus reveals that these models came through a different door from those from the higher bracket and Smola divulges that he kept several on hand at a time so he could pick and choose. As we see `Two Female Nudes Embracing', `Two Lying Nudes in an Embrace' (both 1903-04), and `Two Reclining Women Study For Water Serpents II' (1905-06), Auer points out that same-sex encounters were forbidden in Vienna at the time and that Klimt could also have landed himself in trouble for depicting them.

Bisanz-Prakken and Fellinger stress the importance of eroticism to Klimt, as indicated in `Water Serpents II' (1904; reworked 1906-07), which some denounced as pornographic. Acknowledging that sex was rife in outwardly respectable fin-de-siècle Vienna, Plumley wonders whether Klimt painted these women with affection or a dread that they would devour him after congress like a preying mantis.

Auer takes a closer look at `Judith', which presented the biblical character as a modern woman. She notes how the severed head of Holofernes is gently being pushed out of the frame and focuses on the way Klimt depicts her breasts, lips, and eyes to suggest both sensuality and male anxiety. Plumley alights upon the difference between Klimt's allegorical works and the portraits that betray the constraints placed upon the sitters by a misogynist society that the artist himself perpetuated. Thus, Plumley finds `The Kiss' a bittersweet picture, as it isn't as romantic as it appears. A gentle lover wouldn't place his hands around his resistant partner's throat and he detects something tense and latently violent about what others see as a celebration of love. But, as Klimt refused to discuss his canvases, there's no way of fathoming his intentions.

`The Kiss' was first exhibited during a major retrospective in 1908 that also included `The Three Ages of Woman' (1905). Wieber contrasts the difference between the life-affirming aspects of the two paintings and the depiction of the old woman as a reminder that life is cruel and short. This is even more apparent in `Death and Life' (1910-11; reworked 1915-16), which Ristic claims is a reminder of the fact that everyone has to die and that death can occur at anytime. He also explains how Klimt changed Death's mantle in 1915 to fill it with cemeterial crosses. Yet, as he paid so little attention to world events, it's not certain that this was a reference to the Great War.

Klimt himself succumbed to a stroke at the age of 55 on 6 February 1918. So, where does he rank in the artistic pantheon. As we see Pablo Picasso's `Friendship' (1908), Smola notes that Cubism, Dadaism, and Fauvism emerged during this period and continue to influence contemporary art. But Klimt is something of a cul-de-sac. Plumley similarly worries that `The Kiss' is now more about kitsch than kunst. But he reclaims him as a great draughtsman whose rendering of the human body was exceptional in works like `Hope I' (1908), `The Virgin' (1913) and `The Bride' (1917-18). He also tackled big themes, absorbed influences, and was open to change. Not only, therefore, does he merit his status, but he's also worth reappraising because not all that glitters is gold.

Deftly structured by director Ali Ray and co-writer/producer Phil Grabsky, this is not only a thoughtful reappraisal of a painting whose reputation goes before it, but it's also a searching examination of the social, cultural, and emotional forces that shaped Klimt's life and work. As biographical information is sketchy, Ray and Grabsky focus on Klimt's art and his processes. They also allow the assembled specialists to express differing opinions about the work and the man rather than simply chorus approval.

But might the co-scenarists not have mined the 400 letters and postcards that Klimt wrote to Flöge, which offer insights into his personality, passions, and worldview? Klimt himself might not have kept a diary or made any written contributions to the Secessionist magazine, Ver Sacrum, but surely one of his peers must have confided their impressions in a journal or their correspondence? Similarly, the critics of the day will have had their opinions on Klimt and his oeuvre. Yet we don't hear from a single contemporary review, as the experts instead make passing reference to claims that certain works were pornographic.

As ever, the presentation of the images is alert and adroit, with Alexander Schneider's camera capturing the complexity of the pictures, as well as conveying their texture and tone. Moreover, editor Clive Mattock gives the viewer time to cast an eye, although competing clashes between caption and subtitle sometimes allows snippets of information to slip through the cracks.

As ever, Asa Bennett's score is nuanced in its shifts between piano and strings, while the level of scholarship is also nimbly modulated to inform without intimidating the uninitiated, while also providing connoisseurs with plenty to think about. Given the ongoing debate about whether art should be kept separate from the artist, Klimt may be on borrowed time in the eyes of the cancel brigade. But, for all its occasional coyness about the man and his motives and morality, this EOS entry makes a valuable visual and intellectual contribution to the discussion.

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