At the height of Viennese summer, tourists and art-lovers alike escape the heat in palace turned art museum Belvedere, an oasis of white stone overlooking the city.
Unter (Lower) and Ober (Upper) Belvedere, the two stately structures connected by manicured gardens, were originally built as residences by Prince Eugene of Savoy in the 18th century. Now, its marbled halls are museums that house works from some of Austria’s most renowned artists from multiple centuries. Its most iconic work is Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt’s Der Kuss (The Kiss).
The Symbolist movement that included both literature and music drew inspiration from myths, favored fantasy over reality, and depicted themes such as space, time, and the afterlife.
And in a series of dark, high-ceiling rooms filled with larger-than-life canvases in Ober Belvedere, visitors can do the same.
In Adolf Hirémy-Hirshl’s Seele am Acheron (Souls on the Acheron), realistic figures shrouded in mist cling to the stoic Charon in a romanticization of the myth.
Through artwork like this, viewers are drawn in to the mystical world of the Symbolists. In the nucleus of this world is Belvedere’s most acclaimed contributor: Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).
A gallery devoted to his work showcases Klimt’s versatility. Pictures covering the walls span diverse styles from charcoal portraits and impressionistic landscapes to the gilded art nouveau inspired pieces of his distinctive “Golden Period”.
The most iconic of his work, though, is the masterpiece Der Kuss (The Kiss). Mounted on an expansive black wall, the canvas depicts an embracing couple in patterned dress, perched on a flowering cliff against a gold-leaf backdrop.
Painted in 1907-1908 at the height of his “Golden Period”, Der Kuss immortalized Klimt. And judging from the lingering crowd, its acclaim is well deserved.
It could be argued that the painting’s appeal is intellectual as well as aesthetic. As an icon of the Symbolist movement, viewers almost can’t resist looking for the hidden story behind the picture.
For the couple’s embrace is not merely an image but also an enigma evoking the imagination to question: Dominance or devotion? Love or lust? Romance or rape?
The clues to solve the mystery – the placid line of the woman’s mouth, her bent hand clutching his, the tense crook of her ankles gripping the edge of the precipice – can be used to support almost any interpretation, without coming to one conclusion.
Perhaps that is why this particular painting draws a crowd with craned necks that seem as though they cannot leave. For a moment, twenty minutes, an hour, viewers’ imaginations get lost in the hypnotic gold shapes of Klimt’s Symbolist art.
And when visitors emerge from the dark gallery and cool marbled chambers of Belvedere to blink into the summer sun, they may feel as though they really have fled the world for a while.