Exhibition on Screen: Klimt and The Kiss

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers: Phil Grabsky and Ali Ray

Director: Ali Ray

A cultural icon that earns the name, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss forms the centre of an exhibition at Vienna’s Belvedere Museum. A painting of a uniquely intimate encounter, the latest film from Exhibition on Screen asks the crucial question – what kind of kiss is it?

The painting has become a representation of Vienna’s glamour era. Adorned with flecks of gold leaf, The Kiss initially dazzles; it is gorgeously decorative, dream-like. Klimt’s Golden Period undoubtedly moves the portrait genre forward, but his sitters’ hazy stares are almost interchangeable. The documentary considers The Kiss from this gendered perspective – the physical dominance of the male subject as he clasps the woman’s face in his hands, while she is less solid, less tangible. The ultimate portrayal of romance – that kiss – seems to shift the more we look at it.

To examine Klimt’s motives further, the film places him within the context of his peers and contemporaries. The stylistic influences within Klimt are self-explanatory: medieval art, Byzantine icons, Japanese lacquer work, but where it gets interesting is when Klimt is directly compared to other artists working within the same time period.

We see the freehand lines of Toulouse Lautrec in Klimt; the idealised society portraits of John Singer Sargeant. Influences as varied as the Dutch symbolist Jan Toroop and Scotland’s Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh point sharply to Klimt’s sudden veer into the world of Art Nouveau. We even have a “who wore it best?” moment when the Harmony in White and Blue portrait by Whistler is placed directly alongside Klimt’s Portrait of Hermine Gallia. Painted thirty years apart, we can see the progression as Klimt’s depiction of diaphanous fabric and print nudges ahead of the bi-tone flatness of Whistler. It all speaks of an artist who was intently observing what was being painted (and exhibited) around him.

This contextualising is important as the issue of legacy is raised. In discussing where paintings like The Kiss rank in the history of art, while Klimt was an agitator, he did not innovate as the Cubists or the Fauvists did. With an image so readily reproduced as The Kiss, the documentary asks whether Klimt’s art could be seen as gaudy, or even trivial. The cultural historian Gavin Plumley, when interviewed, goes to the artist’s defence. Look at how Klimt sketches the human body: Plumley signposts his skill as a draughtsman, musing that we should consider Klimt on this point as a rival to Caravaggio and even Michelangelo.

Although Klimt and The Kiss starts as a deep-dive into this famous yet enigmatic painting, the documentary makers’ decision to take in Klimt’s whole body of work, reveals a far more balanced portrait of the artist. But Klimt’s sexual politics cast a long shadow over the film. The ambiguity of the painting – is it romantic and life-affirming, or does it hint at darker, more violent urges – continues to divide opinion. The film does not draw us in any particular direction, instead, as Klimt might have preferred, leaving us to judge for ourselves.

Klimt and the Kiss is in cinemas nationwide from 30 October 2023.

The Reviews Hub Score:

A balanced portrait

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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