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.
Image 02. Miss Emilie Floege (Floge), Oil on canvas by Gustav Klimt.
Image 03. The Kiss, Painting by Gustav Klimt.
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.
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.”
Klimt’s influence on Schwestern Flöge was intrinsic from the beginning. Its interiors were designed by Wiener Werkstätte, an early commission for the group founded in 1903 by Koloman Moser and architect Josef Hoffman (both founding members of the Secession alongside Klimt and others) around the premise of Gesamtkunstwerk, or, total work of art. In keeping with their aim of infiltrating day-to-day life with high-quality, aesthetic products, Moser and Hoffman designed everything from the salon’s sleek furniture to its corporate identity, shop sign, stationery, invoices and other printed collateral.
And Klimt was influenced in turn. The salon’s reform dresses were often made in Wiener Werkstätte fabrics, and Flöge herself designed some patterns for the group. It is these creations that would often find their way into Klimt’s artworks. “It is astonishing how much importance Gustav Klimt attaches to the fashionable appearance of the women he is portraying,” says Smola, referencing the meticulous technique and sensuality with which he rendered textiles in oil paint. In 1905, Flöge even lent her sensibilities to Klimt’s artwork by helping him design the golden-terracotta colouring of the Stoclet Frieze series. The series comprised of three mosaics created for Stoclet Palace, the Hoffman-designed mansion in Brussels that embodies the spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk. One of these mosaics shows a couple embracing, a direct precursor to The Kiss.
In their complementary endeavours, Klimt and Flöge found themselves at the heart of a new zeitgeist, trendsetters for the Viennese high bourgeoisie in art and fashion alike. The salon flourished; at its peak the Flöge sisters employed up to eighty seamstresses. A portrayal by Klimt already cost a small fortune. They shared clients who coveted modernity in all its forms and had the means to pay for it.
The unique climate of early 20th-century Vienna had been set in place by the 50 years of social and political upheaval that preceded it. In 1848, the Habsburg monarchy survived two attempts at revolution before installing Franz Joseph I as Emperor. The young monarch swiftly levelled Vienna’s city walls and ordered the construction of the Ringstrasse boulevard in their place, connecting the Vienna suburbs to the centre of imperial power. Grand homes, palaces and stately public buildings—including the Vienna State Opera—were built along its route over the next half-century. In the 1860s, full civil rights were conferred on the Jewish population, many of whom would become important patrons of the arts and part of the burgeoning bourgeoisie. And by 1867 the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary had been established, which saw people from across its fifteen nations drawn to the capital, increasing the city’s population and multiculturalism dramatically. By 1890, Vienna had become the global epicentre of intellectual and creative innovation.
The undercurrents continued to shift and Vienna emerged on the other side of the First World War as a different city once again. The Habsburg Monarchy, which had reigned for six centuries, had crumbled and by 1918, Vienna no longer ruled over 53 million people but instead was the grand capital of a small republic. Its precarious position on the edge of an unknown identity coincided fatefully with the end of Viennese modernism, when four of its key protagonists died. Klimt died of a stroke in February that year—with his last words, reportedly, “send for Emilie”—followed by Otto Wagner, Koloman Moser and Egon Schiele.
Flöge inherited half of Klimt’s estate, and continued to run her salon for twenty years after Klimt’s death. She closed Schwestern Flöge in 1938 as a result of losing too many clients—who were Jewish—when Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany. Flöge, whose two sisters had died in 1917 and 1936, lived at Lake Attersee with her niece Helene Donner throughout the Second World War, before her own death in 1952. Flöge’s collection of garments and items from Klimt’s estate were all destroyed in a fire that engulfed her city apartment during the war, an unfortunate event that would see her work slip into the shadows of obscurity for many years. Despite being a prominent figure during her time, much of what is known about Flöge today has only been uncovered through research into Klimt.
Years of devastation obscured, if not destroyed, Viennese Modernism, which became all but forgotten until an exhibition at the Wien Museum in 1985. Dream and Reality, introduced the movement back into the cultural consciousness inspiring arts and culture on a global scale. But such is the extraordinary nature of Klimt’s paintings, Flöge’s fashion, Schiele’s sketches, the designs of the Wiener Werkstätte or indeed the architecture of the Secession building itself, that they do not need to be filtered through a contemporary lens to feel relevant more than a century later.
A hundred years on from the death of Klimt, Schiele, Moser and Wagner, Vienna is celebrating this era with a year-long series of events and exhibitions based on the theme Beauty and the Abyss. Taking place across the city, the celebration aims to provide a nuanced and comprehensive insight into Viennese Modernism.
Image Credits: Image 01. Photo by Imagno/Getty Images. Image 02. Miss Emilie Floege (Floge) Oil on canvas (1902) 181 x 84 cm by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Wien Museum Karlsplatz, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images. Image 03. The Kiss, Painting by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), oil on canvas, 1907 (180x180 cm) Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Viena (Austria). Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images.
Neue Luxury • Issue 9 • Art • Feature • BY Imogen Eveson SHARE
JOHAN VAN MULLEM
Mirrors to the other side
Van Mullem’s monumental portraits are fluid, transitory, evocative things. Rendered in generously applied oil-based ink on unprimed board, they retain a quality of wetness, an uncanny sense that their surfaces are in fact still shifting.
“Sculpture is an exorcism,” Louise Bourgeois once told an interviewer. “When you are really depressed and have no other way out except suicide, sculpture will get you out of it.” It’s the voice of a lifelong extremist: Give me art or give me death.
A total work of art
Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet epitomised the early 20th century haute bourgeoisie aesthetic. The most obtuse and daring of their projects was the Stoclet Palace, a private mansion designed to transport its inhabitants into a wonderland of grandeur and luxury.