In a group portrait taken in 1902 depicting members of the Vienna Secession, Gustav Klimt stands out. His fellow modern artists, architects and designers, with whom he had broken away from the conservative Künstlerhaus to form a new art association five years earlier, are dressed elegantly in tailored suits, bow ties and hats. Some, like Koloman Moser—the world’s first graphic designer—appear surprisingly conventional, despite their progressive predilections. Klimt, president of the Secession and already recognised as a taboo-breaking trailblazer of Viennese Jugendstil (Art Nouveau), espouses a different look. Wearing a kaftan like garment, he stares straight at the camera, somewhat wild-eyed. His dress and posture lend him the air of an apostle and place him on a different plane.
Klimt is wearing his trademark indigo blue painter’s smock. We know it is blue because of the suggestive dashes of pigment that Egon Schiele once employed in an unfinished sketch of his friend and artistic idol, and because Klimt appears wearing the smock in the only known colour photo taken of him. According to Dr. Franz Smola, a curator for the Belvedere museum who specialises in Vienna around 1900, Klimt’s idiosyncratic garment “could have easily been designed by Emilie Flöge”, the artist’s lifelong friend and partner. An influential fashion designer and businesswoman, Flöge’s unconventional and independent spirit matched the artist’s, but her profile has faded more than his in time. Both artist and designer imbued their work with the same love of nature, eclectic influences (from classical art to folk traditions and ethnography), and self-expression: Klimt, in his highly decorated Art Nouveau canvasses that swirled with symbolism and sexual desires; Flöge in her free flowing and bold reform dresses that liberated fin-de-siècle Viennese women from tight-laced fashions. The pair inspired each other as they cut loose from convention to create something new in their respective fields, the edges of which would bleed into one another over the course of two decades.
Flöge was a teenager, and Klimt 12 years her senior, when they first met at the end of the 19th century. They became part of each other’s lives when Klimt’s brother Ernst married Flöge’s sister Helene in 1891, and further still when Ernst died the following year and Klimt assumed guardianship of his infant niece Helene, ‘Lentschi’. In 1893, Klimt painted the young Flöge’s likeness in a gentle, naturalistic style (Portrait of Emilie Flöge). A second portrait, Portrait of Emilie Flöge, painted in 1902 shows the remarkable stylistic transition the artist made in the interim years. Here, Flöge’s softly rendered features are contrasted against a mystical blue-green background; her dress drips with ornamentation that reflects the craze for Ashanti culture that had swept Vienna following two ‘ethnic’ shows on the former west African empire in 1896 and ’97. By this time, the pair’s relationship had also evolved. Around 400 cards and letters sent from Klimt to Flöge between 1895 and 1917 have led art historians to conclude that, while a romantic connection may have been made at first, their relationship soon developed into a platonic, companionable one.
In 1907, Klimt began work on his masterpiece, The Kiss (Lovers), the apex of his ‘golden’ phase, in which the artist—inspired by Byzantine mosaics—blends gold leaf into his oil paints to glittering, almost three-dimensional effect. The Kiss was bought by the Belvedere in 1908, before Klimt had applied his finishing touches, and hangs there still today. It depicts two lovers locked in an embrace, and has been interpreted by art historians as representing Klimt and Flöge themselves. Smola concedes that it is tempting to identify the pair in this artwork, but “frankly, we do not know. In a certain sense, the painting is a projection of Klimt’s personal feelings, definitely. But to identify a true portrait of Flöge in this painting, there I am not sure. The Kiss belongs to the genre of allegorical paintings that Klimt realised throughout his life, and in all these allegories Klimt never portrays individual people, but instead makes images of an idealised type of person. Therefore, the women in Klimt’s paintings have this ‘typical’ Klimt look, this easily recognisable female elegance and charm, just as the woman in The Kiss does.”
Though Klimt charged his work with the creative energy of the day, he did not depict the world around him. He lived through the First World War, but did not let any atmosphere of fear or uneasiness creep into his paintings. “On the contrary,” says Smola, “you get the impression that in his late works he becomes even more enchanted by the idea of an idealised world, a kind of paradise full of harmony, ornamentation and charming colours”. By rooting his artwork in timeless allegorical subjects and images of natural beauty, Klimt ensured that his artworks would be free to resonate anew with each viewer. Whether or not The Kiss depicts Klimt and Flöge is irrelevant because it transcends the earthly realm. It is an enduring symbol of eternal love.
If, on canvas, Klimt cast all women in the same beatific light, in his private life he separated them. Klimt never married and lived with his mother until her death, but rumours of affairs with his models and the upper-class women who commissioned portraits from him abounded: Klimt is known to have fathered fourteen illegitimate children. But he placed Flöge on a pedestal, posits Dr. Christian Brandstätter, the publisher and author of Klimt & Fashion, whose archive of 900,000 photographs housed in an old Viennese apartment building, contains a portal to fin-de-siècle Vienna. “He deferred to two kinds of females,” Brandstätter says—alluding to the ‘Madonna-Whore complex’ that Sigmund Freud, the world’s first psychoanalyst, was ruminating on in Vienna’s coffee houses during the same period. As an object of admiration rather than desire, Flöge was Klimt’s official companion in society events such as exhibition openings and concerts. And from 1900 onwards, Klimt spent many summers with the Flöge family at their home on Lake Attersee, 250 kilometres south-west of Vienna.
Snapshots taken during these times, now part of Brandstätter’s archives, afford us a rare glimpse into the pair’s shared life together. Here, Klimt would wear his painter’s smock and Flöge would model her own creations, eclectic and unbound from corseted norms, in patterned fabrics that can be recognised in Klimt’s paintings. One series of photographs taken in the summer of 1906, shows Flöge modelling a collection of reform dresses to promote Schwestern Flöge, the haute couture salon she had opened with her sisters Helene and Pauline two years earlier. The images appeared in the spring of 1907 in the Art Nouveau magazine Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, with Klimt’s insignia attached, a detail that has led experts to believe that—as well as lending his illustrious public profile to Flöge’s fledgling venture—he took the photographs himself. “You could say he was one of the first fashion photographers with this small series of twelve photographs,” says Brandstätter. “And he was also the first fashion photographer who didn’t photograph in an atelier; he photographed in the countryside.”