I first became aware of Gustav Klimt and his work when I was in 10th grade. I had decided to switch my language classes from French, a language I found frankly boring and far more difficult than necessary, to German. My German teacher at the time was named Frau Christophe; she was a delightful, bright, energetic sort of woman, who had a love for European culture in general, and who went out of her way to educate us as much in the history of the language we were trying to learn as the actual mechanics of grammar and vocabulary.
I took German well into my college years, but this first semester of lessons will always stand out in my mind. I met many people in that class and learned many things that changed me in ways I did not suspect until much later. I also developed a love for Germanic culture and eastern European history in general. Gustav Klimt was part of this interest. Frau Christophe had a large print of Klimt’s The Kiss, which was actually called Lovers when it was first exhibited in Vienna in 1908, hanging by the classroom door, directly in front of my desk.
With all my trips to art museums and galleries, I had never seen a painting quite like The Kiss. It drew my eye every time my attention wandered from the lesson at hand and I spent many classes leaning back in my seat between exercises and staring at the portrait, a grimace on my face. I couldn’t understand the picture. Why were they dressed like that? Why was the woman twisted away from the man in such an uncomfortable looking position? The background of gold – was that meant to be the sky? What was the picture trying to say? And why, despite finding the picture indecipherable, did I like it so much?
Gustav Klimt lived in Vienna, Austria for all his life, from 1862 to 1918, when he died at the age of fifty-five. He was a popular and controversial painter during his lifetime, and his work, while undoubtedly well-done and interesting, did not leave any lasting mark on the pages of art history. He never married, though he fathered more than a handful of illegitimate children, and in fact rarely was seen in society, preferring to spend his time with close friends and family. He hated speaking or writing about his work, feeling strongly that the work should speak for itself, and that anyone who wanted to know more about him should look to his work and try to see the man who he was in that. This has left many of his paintings, including The Kiss, very much up to the interpretation of the viewer.
As I grew older, I sought out more of Klimt’s work for comparison and study. I have yet to find a piece of Klimt’s which I do not find deeply fascinating, though I think it is fair to say that I have also not found a piece I feel I fully understand. But I have become reconciled to this mystery by, at the minimum, understanding what it is about Klimt’s paintings that I find so beautiful. I think, unlike many painters of his period and indeed, after his lifetime, Klimt’s paintings are filled with his unbridled passion and reverence for his subjects. The paintings take on almost religious iconography and tone, The Kiss most of all. However one interprets the piece, there can be no doubt that the hand that created it felt the deepest sense of awe for this act, for the consummation of love in a kiss. His erotic works, of which there are many, likewise rise above simple titillation to something more by the profound respect and love with which he treats each of his subjects.
It is this unchecked passion which draws many to Klimt’s work. He holds nothing back when he paints, and truly, you can tell much about the soul of the man by really looking at his paintings. More than craft or message, I believe that the presence of passion in any work of creative art elevates it from something that is merely good to a masterpiece. By investing our own love for the topic, or person, or words, into our work, we communicate and inspire love for it in others.
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