The sensual and ambiguous love between the merman and the Nereid. Max Klinger's masterpiece

A pictorial masterpiece by German Max Klinger, the "Triton and Nereid" (also known as "The Kiss of the Mermaid") is preserved in Florence and depicts the sensual, ambiguous and mysterious love between two sea creatures, a triton and a Nereid.

Rarely do we find, in mid-nineteenth-century painting, paintings imbued with an immediate, almost shameless eroticism, such as that which permeates Max Klinger’s Triton and Nereid , the German artist’s most famous painting, a work that still manages to enjoy a certain amount of success today. The same cannot be said for his other works, despite the fact that in his time Klinger was a famous artist (on the level of a Klimt, just to give a yardstick for comparison): his works raised discussions, his engravings circulated everywhere, and his ideas would inspire legions of younger artists, starting with Giorgio de Chirico, who is greatly indebted to him. Then a curtain came down on his figure, which in Italy was partially lifted by the exhibition that, in Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti dedicated to him in 1996: nevertheless, Klinger’s name is still among those who struggle to make a name for themselves with the general public. His painting, however, has a fortune that touches very few others: it is among those that remain imprinted, engraved in the memory, marked with indelible traces in the minds and souls of those who admire it. Take some random visitor to the Gallery of Modern Art in the Pitti Palace, where the painting has been on deposit from the Villa Romana Institute in Florence (founded, moreover, by Klinger himself) for the past few years, and ask him to name five random works that have impressed him. You can bet that the marine intercourse between the two mythological beings will be among the most recurring paintings.

Merit, surely, to the surprise the painting elicits: after a corridor in which the visitor sees, for the most part, sequences of landscapes, portraits and interior scenes, Klinger’s marine painting has the same effect as a sudden, ringing, dissonant change of tempo in a classical music concert. And credit, above all, to the evocative immediacy of that oh-so-passionate embrace between the triton and the Nereid, the sea nymph, amidst the waves of a rough sea. Klinger chooses to keep the horizon line very high, a short distance from the upper edge of the painting, setting aside any attempt at compositional balance, omitting any academic norms, to bring out the moment of passion between the sea creatures. A hint of a cloudy sky in the distance, and then the expanse of the sea: the two figures emerge amid the billows, let themselves be carried by the water, heedless of the rush of the waves, a clear reference to the overwhelming impetuosity of their passion. The Nereid is imagined by Klinger as a mermaid: lying on her back, she is caught from the side, and we admire the delicate rosy tones of her soft complexion, linger on the arm that wraps around his neck, on the red hair wet by the water, see her scaly tail that twists around the buttocks of the merman, equipped with legs that in turn end in fish tails. The newt, a raven-haired teenager with an olive complexion, closes his eyes after finding the Nereid’s mouth, glues his lips to hers, presses his chest against the nymph’s breast, with his left hand leans on her tail, heedless of the waves, pulled by passion, searing, alive, seduced.

Max Klinger, Triton and Nereid (1895; oil on canvas, 100 x 185 cm; Florence, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, on deposit from Villa Romana)
Max Klinger, Triton and Nereid (1895; oil on canvas, 100 x 185 cm; Florence, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, on deposit from Villa Romana)

At first, Klinger’s scene appears to be an idyll of love between two inhabitants of the sea, speaks of a passion that is no less strong than those consumed on land, and may recall the mythological episode of the love between Glaucus and Scylla, between the son of Poseidon and the beautiful naiad, which ended in tragedy with her transformation, through the envy of the sorceress Circe, into the horrible monster hidden in the caves of the Strait of Messina. The Symbolist ambiguity of the German artist’s painting, however, discloses further, less reassuring meanings: the nymph’s disturbing reddened eye and the rough sea itself may allude to the siren’s deceitful nature, to the risks run by anyone who lets herself be embraced by her, to the dangers of her fatal seduction. A sense of anguished turmoil that is amplified by the gloomy light of the sky, by the clouds gathering above the horizon. The embrace then will appear to us as an energetic and unbreakable grip, the tail will seem to us like a tentacle ready to clasp the victim, the nymph’s apparent abandonment will become the position of the siren ready to drag her lover into the abyss, despite the fact that he opposes an attempt to wriggle out of it, trying to push on the tail with his left hand.

It is that in Klinger’s time the art public found the theme of woman’s duplicity particularly fascinating; they remained intrigued by the indecipherable ambiguity of the female temperament. The theme was not entirely new to German art of the time: already Arnold Böcklin, beginning in the 1870s, had produced a number of images of mermen and sirens around which critics had long wondered. One catches, in Böcklin’s and Klinger’s images, the fascination for sea creatures that Heinrich Heine describes in his Elementargeisters, speaking of the Nixen, beings from Nordic mythology similar in appearance to mermaids: “There is something mysterious about the actions of mermaids. One can imagine many sweet things and at the same time many terrible things under the water. The fish, the only ones who can know anything, are silent. Or are they silent out of caution? Do they fear cruel punishment if they betray the secrets of the quiet aquatic realm?” Klinger’s painting seems to be an iconographic translation of Heine’s words, an image that effectively conveys the dark, inscrutable, enigmatic temperament of mermaids.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that in classical mythology there are no loves between mermen and Nereids. The passion that ignites the two creatures is an invention of Klinger, who at the time of the creation of his masterpiece was residing in Italy, in Florence, at the same time that Gabriele d’Annunzio was staying at the Capponcina, at a time when Böcklin was also frequenting Tuscany. We usually think of D’Annunzio’s culture as a source of inspiration for the visual arts, but sometimes the opposite also happens. Now, we do not know if and how much D’Annunzio frequented Klinger and Böcklin, but the characters that populate his panic imagery, the mythological figures that move through the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea in his Alcyone, are the same tritons and Nereids that swim in the paintings of the German Symbolists, albeit stripped of that’aura of disquiet, characters from elegy rather than tragedy, and functional, if anything, to compose the imagery of a Versilia as a dreamland similar to the Greece of myth. “Ellas lies between Luni and Populonia,” we read in one of the sonnets of La corona di Glauco, one of the central sections ofAlcyone, where we also read another sonnet in which a bacchante trembles with passion for a triton, to whom she wants to give herself (“Triton, I am your blue female: / Saucy as seaweed is my tongue; both / My legs sound scales clasp me”). D’Annunzio had invented a dreamlike Versilia just as Klinger had invented a fantasy love, alive today in the corridors of the Pitti Palace: the Florentine museum received the work on deposit from the house for artists that Klinger founded in 1905 with the idea of awarding a prize to promising young Germans, guaranteeing them a stay of study and work in Italy. The painting arrived at Villa Romana in 1976, donated by the König family in memory of Klinger himself. The freest masterpiece, the most sensual painting, the most original invention to pay tribute to the founder of the house for artists.