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Gustav Klimt is best known for his opulently gilded, Byzantine-inspired art nouveau portraits of women, which epitomize fin de siècle (and early 20th-century) as the artist who painted The Kiss, that 1907 masterpiece in which two figures melt into each other in a hungry embrace. He binds their bodies together in the same cloth: a shimmering gold tapestry whose pattern references both intimacy and anatomy. The side covering the man is decorated with erect rectangles, while the woman’s is swathed with concentric circles.
Klimt, the leader of the Vienna Secession movement, was a master of symbolism. He embedded allusions to sexuality and the human psyche in the rich, lavishly decorated figures and patterns that populated his canvases, murals, and mosaics. Often, their messages—of pleasure, sexual liberation, and human suffering—were only thinly veiled. His more risqué pieces, depicting voluptuous nudes and piles of entwined bodies, scandalized the Viennese establishment.
Even so, the city’s elite adored his work and frequently commissioned him to paint their portraits. His artist peers were similarly enthralled with his style, recognizing Klimt’s ground-breaking injection of sexuality, atmosphere, and expression into figurative painting. When
Auguste Rodin visited Klimt’s famed Beethoven Frieze (1902), part of the Viennese Secession’s 14th exhibition, he lauded the piece as “so tragic and so divine.” A younger generation of European Expressionists
including Egon Schiele lionized Klimt and latched onto him as their hero.
Today, Klimt’s work still captivates us. Museums sell more colour reproductions of Klimt’s paintings than those of any other artist.