Daily Dose of Europe: Klimt’s The Kiss

Need a break from the headlines? Spend a few moments lingering over this beautiful painting of a couple in love.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

A couple kneels on the edge of a grassy precipice. The man bends down to kiss the woman on the cheek. Their bodies intertwine: He cups her face in his hands; she presses against him and wraps one arm around his neck while touching her other hand to his. The two lovers are wrapped up in the colorful gold-and-jeweled cloak of bliss. It’s just the two of them, lost in the golden glow of the moment.

The Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was channeling the erotic spirit of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The city was wealthy and sophisticated, but also the capital of a fading Old World empire — making it a splendid laboratory of decadence and hedonism. To Klimt, all art was erotic art. He loved painting alluring women and embracing couples. (Some suggest the man in The Kiss is Klimt himself.) Though he gained a bad-boy reputation for wallowing in the degenerate side of sensuality, Klimt made The Kiss all about sweetness: the innocent affection of two people in love.

Klimt’s technique reinforces The Kiss’ romantic side. He used real gold and silver (along with traditional oil paints) to give it the radiant glow of desire. He emphasizes the man’s masculinity with a robe of sturdy geometrical shapes, while the woman is all flowery femininity. The couple comes together in a harmony of color. The shimmering patterns on the robes — flowers, vines, swirls, and rectangles — are similar to what Art Nouveau interior decorators were putting on chairs, dishes, and bedroom walls in sumptuous Viennese apartments. Klimt sets the whole scene of The Kiss inside a perfectly square frame, enclosing the lovers in a world of their own.

The Kiss stands on the cusp between traditional 19th-century art and 20th-century Modernism. On the one hand, it’s a pretty realistic scene of two people. But there’s no background giving it 3-D depth, and the whole scene flattens out into a 2-D cardboard-cutout of patterns and colors — foreshadowing abstract art.

But The Kiss is about passion, not analysis. The couple glows with an inner radiance, lost in a world full of pollen and pistils. The only thing that emerges from this 2-D pattern of paint is the woman’s face. She turns out, and we can see her reaction: Her eyes close, her cheeks flush, a faint smile paints her lips, and she squirms in pleasure, as she succumbs to the pleasure of The Kiss.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Klimt.