In 2018 I was commissioned by the Belvedere Museum in Vienna to write a one-woman show for the bilingual – and very tall – actress Maxi Blaha about Emile Flöge, Gustav Klimt’s lifelong companion, business partner and friend. It was for the Klimt centenary and I had six weeks to write the play. It was a commission I really wanted. I knew Vienna well as I had lived there for six years in my early twenties, but it would be tricky as there was so little to go on: Flöge spent a year clearing Klimt’s studio after his death in 1918 and the story goes that she burnt ‘laundry baskets’ full of correspondence, including all the letters she had ever written to him. We will never know if this is true or not as all her possessions, along with her flat, were destroyed when Vienna was bombed during the Second World War.
A few years ago, 399 postcards and letters that Klimt had written to Flöge came to light, thanks to the third wife of one of Klimt’s illegitimate sons (allegedly there were fourteen little Gustavs in total). His early letters were affectionate and intimate, but over the course of one year they changed completely in tone. Many of them were nothing more than notes about missing – or catching – trains; he was a notoriously bad traveller. There was also an inept poem and a dance card with a drawing of a heart with wings.
So how could I write about Emilie Flöge when there was virtually no trace of her?
I started with what is known. She was born in 1874 in Vienna. Her sister Helene was married to Gustav Klimt’s younger brother Ernst, they had a child together, but Ernst died just over a year into the marriage and Gustav became guardian to their daughter and looked after Helene financially for the rest of his life. This meant that Gustav was part of the Flöge household; he lived nearby, popping in and out, frequenting the theatre with Emilie, and he spent sixteen summers in the same lakeside resort as her family.
We also know that for twenty-four years Emilie and her two sisters, Helene and Paulina, ran one of Vienna’s most successful fashion salons at the heart of Vienna’s fin-de-siècle society: their designs included so-called ‘reform’ dresses that flowed from the shoulder and did not require a corset. We know that she and Gustav had an informal business arrangement: he sent the society women whose portraits he was commissioned to paint to her salon for their dresses and she sent the society women buying from the salon back to him to have their portraits painted. I also found a short article in a newspaper about the salon’s seamstresses going on strike for more pay.
We know he painted three pictures of her: in an early one she is simply a face in a crowd; there is his famous portrait of her which she and her family loathed so much that he felt obliged to sell it; and then there’s The Kiss. The supporters of Adele Bloch-Bauer (of The Woman in Gold fame) maintain that it is Bloch-Bauer in The Kiss, however once you compare Bloch-Bauer’s face with Emilie’s, you know that it can only be Emilie’s sweet face in the seminal work of art that is The Kiss.
There are a surprising number of photos of Gustav and Emilie. Klimt had discovered photography and used his new toy to take photos of Emilie during the long summer holidays by the lake, away from Vienna’s asphyxiating heat. There are the informal photos, where they are both clearly mucking around, trying on hats, dancing, and there are the more formal photos of Emilie in her beautifully-cut, free-flowing dresses, taken by Klimt’s friends.
I read plenty of books by key art historians such as Tobias Natter, Norbert Wolf, and experts from the Klimt Foundation. They appeared mainly fascinated by whether she had slept with Klimt or not or whether she was a lesbian. How else could she have refused the maestro, dressed in the blue smock he habitually wore with no undergarments? (At least he was semi-dressed; his models were forever lounging around naked, waiting to be painted.) It struck me that whether she had had sexual relations with Klimt or not was the least interesting thing about this influential fashion designer at the heart of the Vienna Secession. Instead of being intimidated, I found these prurient articles and books liberating and felt free to write about and discover my own Emilie.
I have always said that I am not a ‘visual’ person, I am a writer for whom words release the imagination. But this time there simply weren’t enough words written about Emilie. What did she think of Gustav? Why did she hate the portrait he did of her? Why did the tone of his letters to her change so radically? These were questions that needed an answer.
I pinned up postcards of Klimt’s paintings around my computer. I studied the photographs. I noticed that Emilie was often laughing in the photos, either out loud in the playful ones or smiling to herself in the photos where she modelled her own creations. So, she had a sense of humour. I saw that when she was standing side by side with Klimt she was a few inches taller than he was, and then I noticed that the woman in The Kiss is kneeling — and suddenly the idea for a scene came to me. It was the first scene I wrote and pointed the way for the rest of the text. In the play, Emilie goes off stage and comes back with a painting of The Kiss: at performances in the Belvedere Museum she brings a fake painting of The Kiss onto the stage, the so-called ‘selfie Kiss’ in front of which tourists can take photos of themselves. She studies the picture and starts to tell the audience about ‘that ridiculous position’, i.e. the fact that the woman is kneeling because, she says, that way Klimt could paint a classical portrait of a kiss, à la Rodin. Suddenly I was ‘in’ — I had found her voice, slightly ironic, amused, but affectionate.
I read the 399 postcards and realised that they changed completely in tone after Klimt had holidayed in Italy with Alma Mahler and her parents when Alma was a young girl of eighteen. According to Alma’s diary he had kissed her and said he was in love with her, and when her parents read the diary they were so appalled that Gustav was sent back to Vienna in disgrace. Shortly after that the first two little Gustavs were born to two of his models, both named Marie, and quite quickly the cards and letters to Emilie stopped being so intimate. I felt it was very possible that Emilie had had a schoolgirl crush on Gustav (she was twelve years his junior) but became wary of his roving eye and so decided that their relationship should not be an amorous one.
I studied the portraits of Alma Mahler, who had a magnificent bosom. I examined Klimt’s portrait of Emilie and could imagine why Emilie might dislike the portrait so intensely: not only did he paint her as being completely flat-chested, but the dress itself did not resemble anything that the Flöge sisters might design. There are very few of her dresses extant, but there are plenty of photographs and portraits showing her designs and what patterns, materials and shapes interested her. More and more I felt I was seeing through Emilie’s eyes.
The visual inspiration continued. Poetic scenes were inspired by the trailing threads of gold in Danaë and The Kiss; a scene set in their lakeside summer retreat was inspired by his paintings of birch trees, villages and the still reflective waters of his On the Attersee; the scene about WWII by Death and Life. The connecting door between my visual and writing imagination was open and inspiration danced through.
Then the play is finished. You let it go on to rehearsals, where the director and performer seek their own clues and inspiration in order to bring the character to life. I love the fact that Emilie is now trotting around the globe, no longer relegated to a Klimt side affair, but in her own right as friend and companion to Klimt until the day he died.
And I love the fact that I found her in Klimt’s paintings. As he once said: ‘Whoever wants to know something about me – as an artist […] – they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognise what I am and what I want’.
I hope I have done the same for Emilie.