A Valentine from Vienna: the Glint of Klimt


There before me was a perfect valentine image: a young couple kissing, wrapped in each other’s arms. Together they formed one unified shape, and a golden glow seemed to envelope them.

I was standing in front of Gustav Klimt’s famous, nearly life-sized painting, The Kiss in Vienna, Austria. I had spent the morning at Schönbrunn, the Versailles of Vienna, and in the past few days, I visited some of this city’s 160 museums from the Kunsthistorisches (Art History), with masterpieces by Vermeer and Velázquez, to the Natural History, especially to view the “Venus” of Willendorf, dating to c. 25,000 B.C.E., to the Albertina, for works by Dürer and Michelangelo. But on this afternoon, I was in the Belvedere, the beautiful Baroque summer residence of Prinz Eugen of Savory (1663-1736.)  Since 1780, when Emperor Joseph II, first opened part of the palace to the public, the Belvedere’s art collection, ranging from Medieval to Modern, has been a major draw of visitors.

So many times, I’ve said that viewing a picture in a book is not the same as seeing it in real life, but more than ever, on this day, I was believing my own words. The Kiss has been reproduced so often—in textbooks, on candy tins, neckties and stationery—that it can appear almost trite and childish. However, seeing the original, now, almost 6-feet square, I could grasp the power of the painting. This is one of Klimt’s gilded works, so the gold truly does glow and the reference to a religious icon is not lost. The couple is kneeling on a field of flowers that seems to grow, organically forming the woman’s dress, linking her to all of nature. In contrast, the man encompasses her in a golden cloak with bold, black-accented rectangles interspersed with Art Nouveau swirls. The painting projects universality and individualism.

Klimt was the founder and first President of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, a group of academic artists who, in 1898, broke with tradition in a Freud-influenced era. While not focused on one particular style, they were largely responsible for the spread of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil (as it is called in German-speaking countries.) Within two years, the association built their own Exhibition Hall engraved with their motto: “To every Age its Art; to Art its Freedom.” The Secession Building, nicknamed the Golden Cabbage because of its gold filigree dome, was designed by Joseph Marie Olbrich. Today, its basement houses Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, on long-term loan from the Belvedere, in a room specifically built for that purpose. Dating from 1902, the frieze is a 34-meter-long mural based on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

I had observed examples of Jugendstil throughout Vienna. Directly opposite the Nascthmarkt (a wonderful open-air food market,) I found two apartment buildings by Secession architect Otto Wagner. One is decorated with gilt medallions, while the other is covered in a majolica tile façade featuring climbing pink flowers. Wagner was also the architect of Karlesplatz Pavillion, which once marked the turn-of-the-century underground transportation system. Golden sunflowers and vining tendrils still adorn the buildings. On the opposite side of the city, I stood in Hoher Markt to watch historical figures move across the face of Anker Clock designed by Franz Matsch in 1911. Klimt’s 1886-8 ceiling fresco Der Thespiskarren, illustrating the history of the theater, remains in place at the Burgtheater, and his Egyptian decorations are in situ at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  

Klimt and the Secessionist artists contributed a distinctively recognizable character to the fabric of Vienna. The tapestry of grand buildings and magnificent squares of this former capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire is woven throughout with a fine gold thread that embellishes its splendor with a glittering, curvilinear flourish. 


The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin