NFT presentation “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt at the Upper Belvedere — Photo: Ouriel Morgensztern / Belvedere, Vienna
Gustav Klimt may have been the foremost Austrian artist of the symbolist school but even the legendary painter may have been surprised at how fans of his work are now able to buy digitised versions of it. To coincide with Valentine’s Day, the Belvedere Palace Museum in Austria decided to issue a series of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of one of Klimt’s most famous images. Known as either the Kiss or the Lovers, depending on which art historian happens to be describing it, this strikingly erotic image depicts two figures in a close embrace. One of the most famous pieces of work of its type, this 1908 oil on canvas picture was created during Klimt’s so-called golden period. It has been a global sensation pretty much since it first went on display.
Given the subject matter – a couple, wrapped in a golden cloak or blanket depending on the viewer’s interpretation – the Kiss features gold leaf, the sort of thing that had been used in sacred and devotional art for centuries. However, Klimt’s racy use of it for the Kiss has obsessed art critiques and historians for decades. Perhaps more tellingly, the image has been a firm hit with the public. Reproductions of it can be found on anything from tea towels to postcards and from posters to coffee mugs. What the management team of the Belvedere Museum have done is offer fans of the painting a chance to own a digital version of it.
Perhaps one of the most appealing things about the work is that the lovers depicted in the Kiss are absorbed by what they’re doing and appear not to notice that they are on what appears to be a precipice of some kind. Many relate that juxtaposition with their own ideas about love and sex, of course, something that the Belvedere sought to cash in on for Valentine’s Day earlier this year. Often, when a respected art gallery makes an NFT – a blockchain-backed form of digitised ownership of artwork – it will offer digital ownership rights of the image to the highest bidder while keeping the original version in their own collection. The point is that NFTs are, at their simplest, unique units of data that cannot be copied without such a copy being easy to detect. However, what the Belvedere chose to do was to break up the painting – digitally speaking, at least – so that people who wanted to buy a romantic gift for their lover could own a section of it.
As director of communications and marketing at the Belvedere Museum, Katharina Steinbrecher, explained when the gallery launched the sale, the 180 cm square painting was broken down into a grid to make up a total of 10,000 pieces each measuring just 18 mm by 18 mm. These square sections of the painting’s digital scan were then allocated at random to people who were willing to pay the asking price. In fact, as Steinbrecher pointed out, the purchase price for each buyer included not one but two NFTs, so there were 5,000 planned sales in total. “Due to the fact that each square shows a different part of the picture – and also that each part of the picture only appears once – every purchaser will end up with something unique again,” she said.
The approach taken by one of the foremost art institutions in Vienna is unusual, especially given the fact that this is the first time that the Belvedere Museum has ventured into digital assets. Although breaking down the digital version of the Kiss meant that many more people could become ‘owners’ of it than a single sale would have allowed for, the asking price was not affordable to all. The museum asked for €1,800 – about £1,500 – for each pair of NFTs.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.