Gustav Klimt, there is more behind the kiss

From the 27th of October 2021 to the 27th of March 2022, the Museo di Roma a Palazzo Braschi is hosting an exhibit with art from one of the greatest and most influential artists of the late 19th century. I am talking about the Austrian painter, and bridgehead to the modernist art movement in Vienna, Gustav Klimpt (1862-1918), whose many works can be viewed at the highly anticipated exhibit titled, Klimt. La Secessione e l’Italia. Klimt is best known for his highly decorative style and use of gold leaf to create two-dimensional iconic figures reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics. Of the most famous of his works include “Judith” (1901), “Danae” (1907), and “The Kiss” (1908), which is perhaps one of the best-selling reproductions of all time. In fact, a large reproduction of this work used to hang in my wife and my first home. “The Kiss” shows a man romantically embracing a woman in his arms and giving her a gentle kiss and it reminds me of the early days of our marriage. So, what better way to celebrate our 20th anniversary than by visiting an exhibit to learn more about the artist who created it. After all, Klimt himself said,

“Whoever wants to know something about me…they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want.”

To be honest, Lauren and I had very little knowledge of Klimt and what drove his art form before our visit. Our appreciation and attraction to his work came from our own personal reflections of how “the Kiss” made us feel. And while there is nothing particularly wrong with that, once we came face-to-face with some of Klimt’s art and listened to the story of the man behind it, what became obvious to us was the powerful influence creative collectives can have to engage culture, and the distorted worldview about beauty, sexuality, and society that shines through Klimt’s work.

The power of creative collectives:
Klimt understood the importance and power of collective collaboration. After both his father and brother died within the same year, Klimt left the Company of Artists and helped launch a new creative collective known as the Secession. His most famous works come from this period of his career. Once a leader whose work conformed to traditional aristocratic artistic norms, Klimt became a leader in a movement that rejected those norms, pushing the boundaries of the art culture and causing much controversy.

The Secession was a creative collective made of artists, designers, writers, and architects that wanted to promote freedom of expression and change the way art was created and shared with the public. They challenge societal norms through new forms of art and literature that provoked new ways of thinking and served as the bridgehead to modernism in Viena. In a patriarchal society with conservative values, and in a time when women still had no right to vote, Klimt produced works that sought to empower women by showing their independence, beauty, and sexuality in ways that generated both praise and much criticism throughout Europe.

A distorted sexual ethic:
Many of Klimt’s works on display in Rome left us amazed by his talent and technique. This sign of God’s common grace is on display in his work with gold-leaf, his incorporation of beautiful designs and patterns, and through beautiful works such as Klimt’s Lago di Garda (1913), Lady in White (1917-18), and Portrait of a Woman (1916-17). But there were also works that left us troubled and saddened. He is famously known to have been a sex addict who fathered at least 14 illegitimate children and who had many affairs with society beauties, models, and whores. Like Freud did for psychology, much of Klimt’s art bring sexuality to the fore. Some of Klimt’s art from the Secession period was labeled as pornographic and at times had to be hidden behind a screen to protect innocent eyes. Many of Klimt’s sketches on display in Rome are erotic are filled with nude women in provocative poses and acts of self-pleasure. There is no other word to describe some of Klimt’s work besides “pornographic”.

False empowerment:
As previously mentioned, the Secession sought to empower women, encouraging their independence and freedom in a society that lacked equality. Klimt masterfully portrays the strength, beauty, and independence of women in his art. Unfortunately, his empowerment of women was often through the eroticization of them, communicating a lie that so many still hold today, namely, that liberating power can be found through individual freedom of sexual expression and the satisfaction of sexual desire. It is no wonder that Klimt’s work received much criticism from the second-wave feminist movement. Having had the reputation of sleeping with many of his models, it begs the question: Were these women truly empowered, or were they simply objectified and used? What kind of beauty and empowerment is that? Not the one Lauren and I want our sons and daughters listening to.

In conclusion, there is much beauty to appreciate behind Klimt’s work. His talent is unquestionable and his technical skills are to be praised. But what can evangelicals learn from Klimt in Rome? I offer two thoughts.

1) Creative collectives can have a powerful impact on culture when they work together to challenge cultural narratives to undermine the norms with something different. For the church this means that our artistic brothers and sisters are to be appreciated and encouraged to do create works of art that reflect the beauty of our Creator’s world and the human experience within it, to expose the false ideologies that have captured the hearts and minds of people in our cities, and to promote the liberating power of the Gospel.

2) When it comes to art, Francis Schaeffer agrees with Klimt, that we can know about an artist through their art because an artist’s worldviews influence and come through what is produced. But while art exists to be judged, criticized, and appreciated, and while we all have different opinions to offer, the Christian is called to judge, criticize and appreciate art through the lens of God’s Word and the Gospel with renewed hearts and minds. With Klimt, we are not called to embrace the ideology behind much of his work nor are we to ignore it. We are called to point out the bondage of the faulty worldview it promotes in order to lovingly proclaim the truth of the Gospel that undermines it. As Shaeffer says,

“We should realize that if something untrue or immoral is stated in great art, it can be far more devastating than if it is expressed in poor art. The greater the artistic expression, the more important it is to consciously bring it and its worldview under the judgment of Christ and the Bible. The common reaction among many, however, is just the opposite. Ordinarily, many seem to feel that the greater the art, the less we ought to be critical of its worldview. This we must reverse.”[1]

[1] Schaeffer, Francis A.. Art and the Bible (IVP Classics) (Kindle Locations 525-526). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Clay Kannard
is co-pastor of the church Breccia di Roma. In 2013, his family was sent to Rome, Italy from Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, through WorldVenture, to serve as a resource to Italians in communicating and living out the Gospel, developing new leaders, and planting new churches. Clay earned a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and a Master of Theological Studies with emphasis in Preaching and Pastoral Ministries through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Twitter: @claykannard