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Unlocking the secret of The Kiss


What happens when a Queen’s expert in Greco-Roman mythology
with an interest in astronomy explores a Viennese museum containing one of the world’s most beautiful paintings?

The result in this case is a research breakthrough in the understanding of the work of one of the world’s most revered artists, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who currently holds the record for most expensive painting sold at auction.

(The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold for a reported $135 million last year, and several of Klimt’s paintings have brought more than $30 million).

Ross Kilpatrick has uncovered previously unrecognized mythical
and celestial symbolism in two of Klimt’s paintings, including one that is arguably his most famous and widely loved, The Kiss.

“It’s like finding a loose thread and starting to pull it,” says Dr. Kilpatrick, an emeritus professor in the Department of Classics. And if you’re on the right track, the thread keeps coming and coming"

The large painting shows a man and a woman shrouded in a beautiful gold-patterned dress embracing each other. While viewing the work in Vienna, Dr. Kilpatrick realized that the ivy in the man’s hair and the pattern of the stephanotis flowers in the woman’s crown identified them as the god Dionysis and his new bride Ariadne.

To memorialize the wedding, Dionysis flung the flowers in her crown into the sky to become the constellation Corona Borealis.

Dr. Kilpatrick later found that another Klimt painting, a portrait of Austrian pianist Josef Pembaur, contained a group of seven stars, similar in configuration to the constellation Pleiades, a name that had been adopted by groups of poets in antiquity and in the Renaissance.
When he returned from his European art tour, he sought out colleagues from three other disciplines - Germanics, art history and astronomy - to follow up his theories. His astronomy colleagues
confirmed that the star and flower configurations in the respective paintings could in fact represent the Corona Borealis and Pleiades constellations.

Jill Scott, a professor in the Department of German Language and Literature, was intrigued by Dr. Kilpatrick’s research, and recently invited him to present his work to a group of graduate students studying turn-of-the-century Vienna.

When they realized it was the 100th anniversary of the 1907 painting’s creation, they invited a few more people and celebrated with a cake after the slide show.

“Ross is a classicist. I’m a Germanist. I usually deal with literature,”
she says.

But Vienna at the turn of the century is a good role model for interdisciplinary explorations because it was a hot bed on intellectual
activity. These writers and artists were talking to each other in an age where that wasn’t often the case, she notes.

“It’s really great that we made this interdisciplinary connection,” says Dr. Scott. “This is exactly the type of research we want to foster at Queen’s.”

Although Klimt is known as a mystical and allegorical painter, it has been accepted that during his later Gold period, of which The Kiss is one example, he had become a more apolitical, genre painter who no longer attempted to paint narratives.

“What Ross’s work shows us is that he continued to be active in telling a story with this work and that he does engage with the politics of Vienna at the turn of the century,” says Dr. Scott.

She offers a corollary to Dr. Kilpatrick’s diligent astronomy research showing that the constellation Corona Borealis, depicted in Ariadne’s crown of flowers, contains a star of variable brightness, R CrB, which
fades (and then reappears), and whose fading was reported in newspapers at the time The Kiss was being painted.

By including the dimming star, Dr. Scott suggests that Klimt could be commenting on previous public rejections of his work, some of which was considered rather shocking and pornographic.

“By putting this constellation in Ariadne’s hair, he actually makes a comment on his position as an artist in Vienna.”

Meanwhile, the appeal of The Kiss, 100 years after its creation, continues to be widespread and lasting, she says.

“What is it about this painting that inspires so many people? I don’t have all the answers, but it’s an extremely beautiful and utopian vision of love. Obviously, he has touched a nerve.”


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