AN ANALYSIS OF GUSTAV KLIMT’S ‘THE KISS’
Painted during his Golden Period, The Kiss is one of Gustav Klimt’s most recognisable works (AS, 2016). The painting is highly decorative and depicts the abstracted form of a man and woman in a passionate embrace (TH, 2012). The couple kneel on a patch of flowers before a golden expanse. Overall, the piece has a warm and serene mood which embodies the theme of unity (PA, 2011). Through the subject of the painting, and elements of design such as shape, texture, colour and tone, Klimt carefully constructs balance in order to demonstrate the enlightening quality of a harmonious duality.
Through the use of shape and colour Klimt strikes a balance between the two figures. The man’s form is constructed almost entirely through out of tonal rectangles, while the woman’s form consists of coloured swirls and circles. This choice of shapes reflects the binary Structuralist thinking of the early 20th century (Briggs & Meyer, 2009). Rectangles and squares reflect the masculine qualities of strength and solidarity while the rounded shapes reflect more the feminine qualities of softness and flexibility (AS, 2016; Davari, S; Echostains, 2010). This contrast makes their unity interesting: they are not one in the same but rather two opposing forces that have united (Harper, 2011). Additionally, both figures have a small amount of the other’s shapes within their form.
This, again, amplifies their unity, as they are absorbing each other, and has been interpreted in many different ways: as a sexual act, as spiritual unification, as reconciliation and as a representation of ultimate love (As, 2016; Davari; PA, 2011). I believe that Klimt was demonstrating all of these and more. The unification of two contrasting elements could also be interpreted as the balance between life and death, good and evil, Mother Nature and mankind, and so on. Through this piece, Klimt explores the notion of a harmonious duality.
Klimt uses decoration and tone to create balance between the embracing couple and the golden background. The couple is depicted almost entirely through detailed decoration and, compared to the speckled background, is high in complexity. The background is much darker in tone than the couple and contains little visual information. This juxtaposition draws the viewer’s eye and helps make the embracing couple the focal point of the piece. It gives the sense that, to the embracing couple, the only thing that matters is their unity. This harmony has set them apart from their surroundings: the rest of world has fallen away and is immaterial and inconsequential (PA, 2011). This helps to establish the idea that ultimate enlightenment comes from uniting a duality.
Through the use of decoration, colour, tone and shape, Klimt creates balance within his work, The Kiss, in order to demonstrate that insight and clarity is achieved through the reconciliation of contrasting forces. While the message is subtle, it was poignant at the time and is still relevant today.
BUT DO THESE TECHNIQUES STILL WORK TODAY?
Just as Klimt used different forms to convey different emotions and meaning, so too does graphic design, advertisement and character design. This has become known as shape language – the idea that different geometric shapes have different emotional properties (Anhut, 2016).
The idea is to break down the concept or character to its simplest form (e.g. strong, stubborn) and use rough geometric shapes to represent this (e.g. a square). Nowhere is this better seen than in animated children’s movies. The image below demonstrates the shape language used for the characters in Up.
When we look at the final version, we can see how squares are used throughout Carl’s design – in his face shape, glasses, eyebrows and chair – and how this matches to his stubborn disposition. This contrasts the Ellie’s more rounded form – as reflected in her face, hair and chair.
Similarly, the character designs for the emotions from Inside Out began as a series of simple shapes that reflected the personality of each character (TFD, 2015). Again, we can see how these suit the final characters:
Butler (2013) expands on this and demonstrates that constructing a character from a shape not only emphasise their characteristics but also gives cohesion and consistency to the overall design. Additionally, the contrast between different characters helps the audience to distinguish them.
Additionally, Klimt’s use of decoration has inspired modern artists such as Jen Zee: the art director of Supergiant Games who incorporated some of Klimt’s techniques into the game Transistor. Zee (2013) states that Klimt’s use of “interesting shapes” and his “flare for dramatic presentation” seemed to work well with the cyberpunk aesthetic.
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