I never expected that a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria to spy some work by Gustav Klimt and his contemporaries would send me back a hundred years to read all I could about his enigmatic companion, Emilie Louise Flöge (1874-1952).
The 2011 exhibition was about the Viennese Secessionist artists, operating around the turn of the 20th century. There was furniture, cutlery, sculpture as well as paintings and drawings – I’d had no idea Klimt had quite the body of work in erotica, and no idea of his apparently platonic and lifelong friendship with Emilie. How refreshing, for a man and woman to be such staunch friends, without lust intervening (although Klimt’s lustiness is well documented).
At the exhibition, there were photographs of her and of her and him, and his wonderful 1902 portrait of her, but she was more than friend and sitter. She was her own woman.
Emilie was a fashion designer who captured the feminist wind of change with her championing of Reform dress, free-flowing garments that encapsulated a broader push for freedom of movement for women. She and her two sisters – one of whom married Klimt’s brother – opened their boutique in 1904 and it lasted 34 years.
And yet, the bounty of the internet didn’t reveal a great deal of detail about her life, and there was a strong focus on her companionship with Klimt.
At such a heady time, culturally and artistically, with strong links to the Secessionists, Emilie must’ve been riding quite the wave. The salon parties alone must’ve been amazing!
I can imagine her holding her own in talk of artistic freedom and social change, of resisting offers of marriage, of running her business with her sisters quite well, thanks very much. And in my short story ‘The Kiss’ (Tales from the Bell Club, KnightWatch Press, 2012), dealing with a nasty occultist when she and Klimt visit a TB sanatorium (a trip inspired by an Oscar Kokoschka painting of a Count Verona, also spied at the NGV), and later expressing her solidarity with the suffragette movement.
There is apparently a bunch of correspondence between Klimt and Emilie, and with her proximity in time, there seems a window for a telling of this bold, optimistic, fervent time*, with these three businesswomen conjuring an almost Brontë-esque allure. Because she (and indeed her sisters) was clearly so much more than the woman in the portrait.
Tales from the Bell Club: http://www.amazon.com/Tales-From-Bell-C
NGV, Vienna: Art and Design, 2011: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/vienna/fashio
* Emilie is the narrator in the 2005 novel The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey so the interwebs tell me.
Want more women in history? Check out this anthology being prepared by FableCroft Publications: http://fablecroft.com.au/about/publicat