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THE UNIVERSE IN A KISS

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By Stephanie Ann Harper

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The Montréal Review, December 2011

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The Kiss (Der Kuss) by Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908

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I have never seen a painting as tender and vibrant as Gustav Klimt's oil on canvas painting, "The Kiss." To me, "The Kiss," circa 1907-08, enacts a perfect transaction between two people with hearts so full of love that the world around them bursts in flamboyant, colorful life. This representative oneness, passion for the universe, is perhaps most aptly described as that instance where the human soul comes to feel the embrace of the Divine Beloved.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was an Austrian painter of the Vienna Secession, a movement of Art Nouveau which he helped to found in 1897. (1) Klimt lived a quiet life, "somewhat cloistered," but "deeply devoted to his art." (2) Despite his isolation, Klimt's images reflect a profound appreciation of the vibrancy of life, and of the natural world, grounded in exotic color schemes and a "highly erotic nature," often depicting nude women or couples in poses that suggest a phallic form. (3) Of this, "The Kiss" is no exception. However, it is in this passionate imagery that Klimt's painting also evokes a sense of Taoist non-dualism, the Sufi principles of the lover/beloved relationship and the ecstatic loss of self, and the acquisition of a type of divine knowledge. Through these notions, related to specific exoteric doctrines, the painting blossoms as a powerful spiritual reflection of a way the seeker might envision her world and the divine presence that has created it, as well a vision of the moment of enlightenment.

The painting depicts a universe free of the separation of objects into stark opposites, but instead a world of non-dualistic convergences, as embraced by practitioners of Taoism. Huston Smith claims "Taoism eschews sharp dichotomies." (4) That is to say, those distinct divisions between opposites such as male/female, life/death, and self/other, are blurred almost to the point of nonexistence. This is an obvious element in "The Kiss." Dr. Eve Mullen explains that non-dualism means "human beings are. a part of nature, not separate. or against it." (5) This unity with one's natural environment is present in the floral motif of "The Kiss." Images of tiny flowers dot the ground where the couple kneels, as if the couple springs directly from the Earth, like the trunk of a tree, reflected in the erect nature of their posture. Additionally, the woman wears similar flowers in her hair, further connecting the humans with the natural world around them. In fact, even the circular spots of color found on the cloak which covers them suggests an abstract floral imagery. These recurring floral patterns, which run through all parts of the painting, actually frame the couple in nature, so that they are not just connected to their environment, but are a part if it.

This Taoist notion that the self is part of, not separate from, the universe, is an element of A.J Deikman's view of the receptive consciousness. Deikman suggests that a person who develops a receptive consciousness is "not distinct from nature" because there is "blurring or merging.boundaries," and this self would perceive the universe with a "World-centered awareness." (6) The couple positioned in the natural world, are two spiritual seekers who have been opened to receive their environment, because they have the open hands of a receptive consciousness.

The couple is also presented in a non-dualist fashion, in that their positioning blurs the lines of male and female. While the presence of male and female should suggest a classic juxtaposition, or a "position of being placed close together.to permit comparison or contrast," (7) they do not appear as separate entities. The pair is completely connected, touching at almost every possible point, so that the actual contours of their bodies, hidden under the golden cloak, are blended into one. It is as though while locked in this erotic embrace, the couple is a singular being. The position of their bodies as two distinct and opposite beings connected and almost bleeding into one another, makes the couple form a traditional Chinese yin/yang symbol, a popular Taoist image. The yin/yang symbol consists of "a circle" with "two fish-like halves.swirling into each other," where "yin is.female, light" and "Yang is male, dark." (8) And, yet, the two opposite halves converge and seep into one another, so as to generate a singular, perfect circle. The same thing is happening with the couple. They are entangled in one another, with the man's hand and lips against the woman's face, so that their bodies form a visible yin/yang configuration.

This convergence of dissimilar objects is further exemplified in the merging of the patterns of swirls and rectangles which adorn the couple's cloak. The woman's side of the cloak is covered in swirls, while the man's side of the cloak is ornamented with rectangular objects. This style was a common strategy for Klimt, who often utilized decoration and embellishment in his work. What makes these particular decorations significant is the way in which the swirls of the woman's half penetrate the male's rectangles, like the act of sexual intercourse itself. This further skews the male/female dichotomy-the female penetrates the male rectangles with her swirls. The picture's erotic nature and phallic imagery, the couple engaging in a sexual act, is the ultimate convergence of two opposites. The couple is so completely involved in one another, that they combine to create one central figure, enveloped in "eternal wholeness," and become one with the universe of the Tao. (9)

This love the couple shares also resonates with principles of Sufism, the mystic division of Islam, in that the couple evokes a strong sense of love mysticism. Sufi love poetry depicts "God's love. at the core of the universe." (10) Similarly, the couple, who are in a state of love with one another, are the central image of the painting. The two dimensional nature of the space which surrounds them, so that the painting looks entirely flat, suggests that there is no world outside of this love. This speaks to the Sufi notion that "the Sufi mystic sees the Lord in all." (11) What is particularly interesting about the nature of the love the couple shares in Klimt's painting, is that it manifests the popular Sufi concept of the lover and the Beloved, where the Sufi mystic is the lover, seeking God, the Beloved. In the painting, the man is the lover who is seeking the woman, his Beloved. He is the obvious aggressor, as he grasps the woman's face in his hands, and places a kiss on her cheek. The way the two are posed, as described above, suggests a state where "all duality melts. The Lover and the Beloved become one." (12) While tension often creates an "anxiety" in works of art, this tension creates a sense of "excitement," (13) which while overtly sexual, also carries a strong spiritual sense of the word. For, the violent passion with which the man pursues the woman reflects Rumi's testament that "The way of love is not/ a subtle argument." (14) That is to say, the seeker, or lover, pursues the Beloved with such veracity that he is almost completely lost in it.

This idea that the lover, or the man, is lost in his pursuit of the woman, who symbolizes the Beloved, or God, appeals to another tenant of Sufi mysticism: ecstasy. In his pursuit of the woman, the man's face is almost completely obscured, suggesting that the man is lost in love. He tries to drink in his Beloved, with his lips to her face. The blissful atmosphere of the warm colors, especially the golden shade of the cloak, suggests that the man, on the quest for his Beloved, is in a state of "divine intoxication," in which the "sweetness" of the experience has sent him into a state where he is unaware of himself. (15) Sufi ecstatics experience a similar sense of "drunken. transcendence", where they may "lose consciousness" of the self and be completely immersed in the images of the universe. (16) In some sense, the painting as a whole, with its exotic tone, color, and shapes, depicts a metaphor for the type of "visionary knowledge" attainable when the spiritual seeker is able to completely divorce herself from the ego. It is a powerful image that this world, this knowledge beyond the self, is depicted as an act of making love, arguably the most intoxicating experience between two people.

The final principle of Sufism, intuitive mysticism, is also present in Klimt's "The Kiss," particularly in the golden hue of the cloak, which is such a central focus of the painting. This golden style, a favorite of Kilmt, reflects the gold grounding of the Byzantine art of the Eastern Roman Empire , where gold was grounded into a thin foil that could then be directly applied to a work of art. (17) It fits that intuitive knowledge is represented by a cloak, a piece of cloth, for the Sufis believe that "the world's objects" are "garments that God must assume." (18) It is another way of seeing how God functions in all things, because God can slip in and out of the world's "garments", as if they were a piece of clothing. The garments of the world are aptly represented by this couple, for the Quran, when talking about the husband/wife relationship, states that "they are your Garments, and you are their Garments." (19) In their perfect moment of bliss, in wearing the garment of each other, the couple has discovered God and the golden nature of the cloak suggests that this presence of the Divine Beloved "clothes" the couple in "celestial light." (20) The way the couple is almost completely wrapped in the golden cloak, which also blends into the background, creating a continuous image, suggests that the couple has gained a sense of this "sensory knowledge," (21) where the universe is exposed for what it really is, what lies beneath the clothing of material things. Rumi describes the reception of this type of knowledge when he says "In the end your rusty chains/ will become a necklace of gold." (22) There is a similar transformation in the golden chain wrapped around the woman's ankles. The gold lines are covered in triangles, suggesting that the chains that have bound her to a world without an intuitive knowledge of God, have erupted into confetti of gold, freeing her to see the wonder before her.

The universe of "The Kiss" defies the dichotomies of the western world, and chooses to instead embody the balance, the pristine symmetry, of Taoist non-duality. The couple is in full understanding of principles of love, ecstasy, and intuition, as defined by Sufi mysticism. The couple is depicted in a two dimensional space, where there is no foreground or background, but instead, a negating of time, a snapshot of a unified, eternal figure, created from the convergence of the couple in the consummation of their love for one another. It is a perfect moment in the spiritual journey, a parting of the veil, a brief glimpse of awakening, where everything comes together and the universe is infinite.

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Stephanie Harper is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a BA in English Literature. She is currently working on her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Fairfield University with a focus in Fiction. Her work has appeared in Forever Buffs Insider, The Review Review, Poetry Quarterly, Midwest Literary Magazine, and Haiku Journal.  She is also the Fiction Co-Editor of Mason's Road Literary Journal.

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Works Cited

Deikman, A.J "A Functional Approach to Mysticism, " Journal of Consciousness Studies (issue 11-12, 2000) 75-91

Gibson, Michael, Symbolism (United Kingdom: Taschen Art, 1995)

Mullen, Dr. Eve, lecture notes from "Women, Men and the Ideal of Non-Dualism in Buddhism and Taoist Philosophy" (Indonesia: March 29, 2006)

Quran, Chapter 2, verse 187

Rumi, "Necklace of Gold," A Course Reader (University of Colorado , 2008)

Rumi, "The Way of Love," A Course Reader ( University of Colorado , 2008)

Sivananda, Sri Swami, "Sufism," (The Divine Life Society, 2005)

Smith, Houston, The Illustrated World's Religion (New York: HarperOne, 1991)

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NOTES:

1 Artlex, "Vienna Secession"

2 Michael Gibson, Symbolism (United Kingdom: Taschen Art, 1995), 126

3 Ibid, 126

4 Houston Smith, The Illustrated World's Religion (New York: HarperOne, 1991) 141

5 Dr. Eve Mullen, lecture notes from "Women, Men and the Ideal of Non-Dualism in Buddhism and Taoist Philosophy" ( Indonesia : March 29, 2006)

6 A.J Deikman, "A Functional Approach to Mysticism," Journal of Consciousness Studies (issue 11-12, 2000) 75-91

7 Artlex, "Juxtaposition,"

8 Mullen, "Taoist Principle"

9 Smith, World Religions, 141

10 Ibid, 171

11 Sri Swami Sivananda, "Sufism," (The Divine Life Society, 2005) 2

12 Ibid, 2

13 Ibid , 2

14 Rumi, "The Way of Love," A Course Reader ( University of Colorado , 2008)

15 Sivananda, "Sufism," 3

16 Smith, World Religions , 172

17 Artlex, "Byzantine Art," http://www.artlex.com/

18 Smith, World Religions, 172

19 Quran, Chapter 2, verse 187

20 Smith, World Religions, 172

21 Ibid, 172

22 Rumi, "Necklace of Gold," A Course Reader ( University of Colorado , 2008)

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