PCA Student Beau Levine on "The Kiss" and "The Caress"

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For Barbara Montefalcone’s class Modernity and Modernisms, PCACertificate student Beau Levine compares and contrasts two iconic works from the Viennese Art Nouveau movement.

Austrian painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, among others, stood at the forefront of an artistic movement that confronted academic conventions of traditional art in the late 19th century. Known as Viennese Art Nouveau (German jugendstil, meaning “youth style”) and founded by a group of Secessionists under Klimt’s leadership, it challenged institutional artistic methods and further adopted a style that put emphasis on expression, abstraction and experimentation, which were also indicative of the progressive modern lifestyle that shaped Austria at the turn of the century. The works of Klimt and Schiele provided an unconventional display of the human condition, a mysteriously sensuous exploration of mind and body by virtue of line, form and colour as equally substantial as the array of emotions portrayed by their figures.

This essay briefly studies the similarities and differences in the painters’ stylistic tendencies evident in two works of art: Klimt’s The Kiss (1908-1909), and Schiele’s Cardinal and Nun (Caress), 1912. The Kiss consists of two lovers; a man locked in a careful embrace with a seemingly passive woman who appears to be in a trance. They are cloaked with a golden blanket-like fabric adorned with multiple geometric patterns. The couple is kneeling very close to the edge of a cliff, although from a bird’s eye/hovering perspective they appear to be laying on the ground. There is no shortage of gold leaf used, a trademark medium of Klimt’s. A great deal of sensuality is latent due to soft, implicit gestures and playful mixture of colors.

Schiele’s Caress ventures into darker territories, both literally and figuratively. Directly defined by its title, Caress depicts a priest and a nun in an embrace not unlike Klimt’s, but one with heavier intensity. The elusive male figure is locked in an unusual, intimate position with the nun, their facial expressions displaying a mix of confusion, fear and secrecy. The majority of the frame is soaked in black, although rigidly interfered by the cardinal’s bright red cape and a shadowy green form looming from behind. Their legs are visible and tense, a feature atypical to previous representations of religious characters. They are composed in a triangular position (arguably a blasphemous reference to the trinity), and while the colors are mysteriously dark and suggestive, they deepen the revealing nature of the scene.

These two paintings are expressive in a manner distant from archetypal portrait paintings that preceded them. Granted, after looking closely at The Kiss, I am fascinated by the abundance of gold as it reminded me of religious iconography in medieval paintings. The image of an earthly couple shrouded in a halo of gold suggests that Klimt was in pursuit of a modern icon, fit to mirror the progressive, artistic development of his time. This metallic treatment also adds an element of divinity to his otherwise ordinary subjects. The flatness of the image deducts perspective, and the speckled luminosity of the background gives the image a heavenly, star-like quality, thus heightening its transcendental state.

Schiele, on the other hand, takes on a more violent approach. Themes of sexual power and carnal desire inform this image. Unlike The Kiss, the embrace depicted in Caress is filled with a bizarre, strange undertone synonymous to anxiety and dismay. The use of kneeling posture and clasped hands denotes a prayer-like stance, like an act of confession as though they are pleading guilty to committing a sin. The nun’s eyes are directed in a way that neither invite nor reject the viewer. This ambiguous gaze raises the possibility of her feeling distraught of being caught, perhaps a greater fear of the priest’s advances or simply participating in the act itself.

Klimt’s mentorship of Schiele and the kinship that developed from their camaraderie proved fruitful in that it gave Schiele the capacity to find his own artistic language and distinguish himself from the elegant style of Klimt’s work. Although Schiele’s figures remain gestural, one cannot overlook signs of anguish and isolation. Their bodies are usually emaciated and captured in unpretentious, spontaneous moments, as though they are bound to break at any time, yet in their physical fragility lies an inherent vitality despite their vulnerable presence. Klimt’s paintings, however, depict a grander narrative. Frequently alluding to myth and religion, he interprets sceneries with a fluidity that renders his imagery timeless and ephemeral. Drawing inspiration from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis while searching for the “immoral” and “freeing repressed desires”, Klimt and Schiele pursued a visual realm that ultimately liberated their subjects within the confines of their own instincts, and further magnifying inner character and subjectivity.

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