Every time I read a book set in Vienna around 1900, I’m amazed at the huge number of important people who lived there at the time and to find that many of them have known each other. It's a fact that most of these celebrities were men, but some were women who either militantly or more discreetly tried to break the limits that the strongly patriarchal society set them… and whose names have far too often fallen into oblivion since. Alma Mahler-Werfel, née Schindler, is one of the few who is still remembered today thanks not only to her famous husbands and lovers but also to her own achievements. The successful businesswoman and fashion designer Emilie Flöge should be another one of these women, but as shows The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey she and her career were always overshadowed by her outstanding life companion Gustav Klimt.
Elizabeth Hickey was born in Louisville, Kentucky, USA, in April 1971. After high school she studied art history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and creative writing at Columbia University in New York. For her master thesis she wrote about Emilie Flöge, a friend of Gustav Klimt, and this work served as starting point for her much acclaimed debut novel The Painted Kiss (2005). A fictionalised biography of William Morris titled The Wayward Muse followed in 2007. Elizabeth Hickey lives with her son in Portland, Oregon, USA.
In October 1944 Emilie Flöge looks at the original drawings of Gustav Klimt, among them preparatory studies for The Painted Kiss, from the thick leather portfolio that she brought to her family summer house at Lake Attersee in the Upper Austrian lake district on her hurried flight from impending arrest in Nazi-ruled and bomb-ravaged Vienna. Each sheet awakes memories. Many years before Klimt did his most famous painting, Emilie Flöge first sat for the not yet celebrated artist whom her father commissioned to make individual portraits of her and her elder sisters.
“When I went in Father was sitting in the corner of the room reading the paper. The air around him was dim with smoke and smelled of leather and cinnamon. He smiled at me but then went back to his paper, leaving me standing nervously in the doorway. The painter was standing in the middle of the room in front of a spindly-looking easel.”Emilie is twelve years old at the time and immediately feels attracted to the eccentric artist who later suggests to her parents that she should study drawing. When her father takes her to her first art lesson, she is disappointed because they don’t head for Klimt’s – disreputable – studio, but go to the tiny cottage outside Vienna where he lives with his mother and brother. And even worse, her first assignment is to draw an ordinary orange-red brick. Nonetheless, this is the beginning of an unusual and close relationship that marks her whole life. As she grows up, they become lovers too, but trying to formally bind him to her never seriously crosses her mind.
“… I was in love with him. I didn't want to be; I wanted to be in love with someone my own age, someone shy and earnest who would send me flowers or try to ingratiate himself with my father, not someone old and libertine, someone who would never marry me, someone who would doom me to a childless life of spinsterhood. …”Before long Emilie is integral part of the circle around Gustav Klimt that includes artists of Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstätte as well as socialites like Adele Bloch-Bauer whom he paints and makes his lover for a while like many of his models. But against all expectations, she also starts a successful career of her own founding a fashion salon with her sisters. Of course, it helps that influential society ladies like Berta Zuckerkandl become her first clients. And then, in February 1918, Gustav Klimt dies leaving Emilie to witness the decline of their world.
The aged first-person narrator of The Painted Kiss is at the same time its female protagonist Emilie Flöge. The author has her tell the story of her life and of her relationship with Gustav Klimt between 1886 and his death from her own point of view alternating diary entries from the last months of World War II and flashbacks that are interspersed with italicised passages about some of the painter’s most important pictures of women and the circumstances of their creation. For the purpose of a compelling story, Elizabeth Hickey altered some facts, notably dates, and filled gaps with her own imagination as she admits in her note at the end of the book. It’s certainly true that writing a fictionalised biography sometimes requires adapting and stretching the truth, but I must admit that I don’t see how making Emilie Flöge a young girl of twelve instead of seventeen when Gustav Klimt first portrayed her improves the story. Quite on the contrary, it turns a teenage infatuation into a child’s fancy. And to let Klimt make the sketches for Hope I more than ten years earlier than in reality, even feels like a completely unnecessary sacrilege to me. Nonetheless, the book seems sufficiently well-researched and without doubt it’s an engaging read.
All things considered, I greatly enjoyed The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey although I can’t say that this biographical novel about Gustav Klimt’s muse and life companion whose name only experts and enthusiasts of the artist still know today made me go into raptures. Undeniably, it’s a lovely as well as interesting story, even if a little too mainstream to my taste and maybe too conventional considering the exceptional personalities that it tries to capture. It also seems sort of odd to me that the book cover of many editions doesn’t show The Kiss to which the title refers, but Emilie Flöge’s portrait of 1902 that neither she nor her family ever liked and that already soon after its creation found its place in the collections of the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien (today: Wien Museum). However, it’s a book that I gladly recommend for the glimpse that it allows into the life of an amazing woman.