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20th November 2023

Meredith Taylor reviews Klimt and the Kiss

Meredith Taylor


Dir: Ali Ray | UK Doc


“To every age its art, to every art its freedom” Vienna Secession.


The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) is one of the most recognised and reproduced paintings in the world and its reproduction posters adorn student bedroom walls from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

Yet this new documentary urges us to look beyond Klimt’s often decorative style at the extraordinary motivations of the celebrated Austro-Hungarian genius whose sensual Art Nouveau creations blend ancient myths with modern eclecticism, and are more valuable today that ever before fetching top prices at international auctions. Klimt’s final painting Lady with a Fan (1918) was sold in June 2023 for £85.3 million, the highest price artwork ever sold at auction in Europe, (according to BBC News).

Klimt was one of the pioneers the ‘Jugendstil’ movement known in Vienna as the ‘secessionists’ who joined a pan-European trend of breaking away and rejecting the old school along with the British Arts and Crafts and Impressionism movements in France.

Gustav Klimt’s 19th century Vienna was a time of conflicted sexuality: in society women were corseted and buttoned up but Klimt’s louche feminine depictions are bursting with a feral sensuality that conveys women’s true nature focusing on love, desire and the cycle of life from birth to death. In his private life, Klimt clearly loved and appreciated women and often slept with his models who hung around his studio, often naked, waiting for a chance to be depicted in his iconic images, reflecting an era that was deeply misogynist.

Meanwhile his elegant portraits of wealthy society hostesses such as Adele Bloch-Bauer and Sonia Knips provided the bread and butter for his lush artistic endeavours that include prints, murals and objets d’art, often elaborated with gold leaf, silver, gilt stucco and mother of pearl. There were also symbolist paintings: Judith and the Head of Holofernes, Pallas Athene, nymphs, water serpents and mermaids. His work also included landscapes and murals such as the famous Beethoven Frieze that adorns Vienna’s Secession Building.


Women also featured heavily in his private life. The artist lived with his mother and sisters and although he never married, his long term partner, the Austrian fashion couturier and businesswoman Emilie Louise Floge, whom he also painted in 1902, shared his artistic vision and dressed in her own loosely-designed feminine creations.

Klimt developed an ornate often dreamlike style and made use of different mediums to express human truths rooted in nature, flowers and the surreal, but his sketching technique was also superb and rivals that of Picasso in its simple yet sensual marks. The impact of grief, madness, love and death on the female body provided a rich source material and formed the basis of his avantgarde work.

Filmmaker Ali Ray makes liberal use of interviews with specialists and art curators to flesh out her latest biopic for Exhibition on Film that follows on from her previous documentaries on Frida Kahlo and Mary Cassatt, the American impressionist painter (2023).

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