The Kiss (Der Kuss / Le Baiser) - 1907/1908 - Gustav Klimt



1907 – In Vienna, Gustav Klimt starts to paint Der Kuss, his best-known work, which he will complete only in 1909. In this composition, designed as a Byzantine icon on a bronze-coloured background, a couple intertwines, in a fissional embrace. The two protagonists are wrapped in gilded coats, which cover most of painted surface.

1911 – In Dresden, Richard Strauss premieres his Viennese opera Der Rosenkavalier. In the first scene of this work, the Marshal’s wife, aka Bichette, soprano, ends a long adulterine night of love with the young Oktavian, aka Quinquin, sung by a disguised mezzo-soprano.

Austria and Vienna are waltzing. Three years later, Europe will blaze up in one of the most deadly conflicts in its history. After the Great War, the world will never be the same again. Ravel will make his own personal assessment of the facts in La Valse, in 1920.


In my mind, these three events are indissociable. They mark the apogee and the decline of a certain Viennese Zeitgeist. The cuckolded Feldmarschall is at war. The couple is obliviously surrendering, wrapped in fabrics, sumptuous fabrics that also act as a shroud, to mop up the sweat of physical love. The action proceeds on a background of waltzes, waltzes on the rim of an abyss where the “small death” of orgasm turns into a true carnage.

On a flowered escarpment, on the rim of a pit which one guesses as being unfathomable, a couple is intertwined. The two coats and the two heads draw the shape of a vertical, erected penis. The two capes seem to merge into a single one. However, a form of sexual dimorphism – like the one of butterflies – associates a neutral, rectangular, black, vertical pattern, with the male, and coloured, tangent circles, with the female. The heads and the naked shoulder of the woman shape the glans without a prepuce of this turgescent sex. The man is brown-haired; the redheaded woman, in a state of post coitum rapture. The abyss prefigures a staging of death. But, to the opposite of the sexuality of the praying mantis, the female will be sacrificed. Her feet already hang in mid-air. Will the femme fatale turn herself into a victim? The eternal cohabitation of Έρως and Θάνατος…

Inversion of the roles and of the sexes. This what Strauss’ opera is about, when Oktavian, a disguised mezzo-soprano, must twice disguise herself as a girl. The difficulty for the interpreter – a woman impersonating a male character – is to give the illusion that, when she/he disguises her/himself as a woman, this is indeed a dressing-up and not a return to his/her natural condition.

Embracing in a cape, followed by death, is also the theme of Puccini’s Il Tabarrro, 1918, the first part of Il Trittico. With Klimt, the action does not take place on board of a barge moored at a quay of river Seine, but – utter limit of profanation – within the framework of a Byzantine icon. The gold leaf covered background simulates a riza or an oklad. A gilded halo can be just observed above the heads of the two lovers. The flatness of the prospect, crushed on a frontal level, accentuates the resemblance with the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna, which Klimt knew well. Sanctification of the couple in love, of the sexual act, of the orgasm, of the male sexual organ?

The verticality of the composition is compensated by the square format of the painting. Verticals, associated with the masculine, and horizontal, associated with the feminine, do therefore balance. Many reproductions of this work crop the subject to make the composition vertical, thus unbalancing the composition towards the masculine, denying

or attenuating, as by a parapraxis, the existence or the reality of the female pleasure. It is true that another reading of the central motive can turn it into a birdcage, whose bars are the man and the captive occupant the woman. In this reading, bourgeois morals and the belief in the dominance of the male remain safe…

Freud just published his Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie, 1905. World War I prepares in the Balkans. Vienna continues to waltz on the powder keg… Waltzing to forget. Waltzing to consolidate the prevailing conservatism. Waltzing to remain blind. Waltzing to hopelessly maintain the old values, even if one knows that they have become worthless…









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