Not long ago I stayed in a hotel by the train station of a small Korean city. In the room hung a reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s Die Umarmung, or The Embrace. This at first struck me as just another piece of culturally incongruous décor — a phenomenon hardly unknown in this country — but then I realized that its sensibility wasn’t entirely inappropriate. For the room was in what belonged, broadly speaking, to the category of South Korea’s “love hotels,” and Klimt, as Great Art Explained creator James Payne puts it, “placed sexuality at the forefront of his work.” The artist had that in common with Sigmund Freud, his fellow denizen of fin de siècle Vienna.
With paintings like Die Umarmung, Klimt pushed the boundaries of what Freud called “the misunderstood and much-maligned erotic.” Payne cites those very words in his new video on Klimt’s much better-known work Der Kuss, or The Kiss.
Completed in 1908, the painting shows both the artist’s penchant for “allegory and symbolism” carried over from his younger days, as well as his mature ability to transform allegory and symbolism “into a new language that was more overtly sexual and more disturbing.” For these and other reasons — its nearly life-size dimensions, its liberal use of actual gold — The Kiss has for more than a century been an un-ignorable work of art, even “an icon for the post-religious age.”
As in his other fifteen-minute videos, Payne manages to discuss both technique and context. Here the “deliberate contrast between the realistically rendered flesh and the two-dimensional abstract ornamentation creates an effect almost like photo montage.” The figures’ clothes offer “a visual metaphor for the emotional and physical expression of erotic love,” and their close framing echoes Japanese woodblock prints, from which Payne notes that Klimt (like Van Gogh) drew great inspiration. He also traces the aesthetic roots of The Kiss through Edvard’s Munch’s eponymous painting, and Auguste Rodin’s even earlier sculpture. “Once considered pornographic and deviant,” Klimt’s was later “put on display in one of the imperial palaces” — and even today, on the other side of the world and in a much humbler context, it retains its romantic power.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.