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Klimt’s ‘Kiss’ Partner Emilie Shares Limelight in Vienna

"The Kiss" (1908) by Gustav Klimt depicts the artist embracing Emilie Floege, his lifelong partner. It is not known whether their relationship was platonic, though letters from Klimt to Floege that have recently surfaced suggest that he had strong feelings for her. Source: Belvedere, Vienna via Bloomberg

She was the woman Gustav Klimt spent his life with, yet they never lived together or married. His offspring -- as many as 14, including two baby Gustavs born from different mothers in the same summer -- were by other women.

Emilie Floege shares the spotlight in Vienna, where an array of exhibitions honors Klimt’s 150th birthday. He portrayed himself in a clinch with Floege in “The Kiss,” one of the most rapturous -- and popular -- homages to love ever painted.

The Belvedere still has the best and blingiest collection of Klimt’s paintings worldwide, even after losing 10 through restitutions to the heirs of pre-World War II owners. The golden “Judith” is among its possessions on display, along with some wonderful landscapes and works by the next generation of painters, including Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.

Two new Klimt acquisitions from a donor are also in the new exhibition: “Family,” portraying a woman and two children, their pale sleeping faces shining from a dark canvas; and “Sunflower,” where the flower stands in for Floege, a fashion designer, in a long baggy dress of a type she often wore during vacations at Attersee, east of Salzburg.

Klimt spent summers with her there, yet there’s no evidence of a physical relationship. For the first time, the Belvedere is showing seven love letters, dated from 1895 to 1899, that only recently surfaced. They are penned in Klimt’s beautifully stylish, barely legible hand and addressed to Emilie.

Love Mystery

In one he calls her “my treasure, my life,” and they are evidence, at least, of his feelings for her -- if “The Kiss” were not proof enough. Did she reciprocate? Her face is turned to the side in the painting, away from his embrace.

A poem he wrote in her dance-card at a ball suggests his love was unrequited. We may never know the answer as Emilie (whose sister was the widow of Klimt’s brother Ernst) destroyed her letters to Gustav.

It’s a shame the letters aren’t transcribed and translated. Their content will be lost on the hundreds of foreign visitors who traipse through the Belvedere this summer.

The Leopold Museum doesn’t have as many spectacular paintings as the Belvedere, yet it has done a better job with what it has in an absorbing exhibition, “Klimt: Up Close and Personal.” Impressive loans include a golden knight on a black horse against a glittering background from a museum in Japan.

Artist’s Photos

Black-and-white photos show the artist relaxing by the Attersee in his loose painting smock, stroking a cat or hugging Floege’s 5-year-old niece. About 400 postcards from Klimt to Emilie over 20 years wind through the exhibition and at least here each one is transcribed and translated.

The content is by no means earth-shattering -- many of Klimt’s missives are to make theater dates, report on the weather from his travels, cancel French lessons, complain of hangovers or just to tell her when to expect him.

Yet they are touching testimony to a lifelong, day-to-day intimacy, preserved in a way impossible in our age because such correspondence takes place by text message or phone calls.

Perhaps we should think twice before deleting that text saying “Bad head. See you tomorrow.” It may end up in a museum.

Klimt Kitsch

An exhibition at the Wien Museum, which has an enormous collection of Klimt drawings, asks good questions. Where is the border between “city-branding” to attract tourists and Klimt overkill? How far has he become kitsch?

As well as Klimt’s famous oil portrait of Floege -- undoubtedly a masterpiece -- the museum is showing its drawings irreverently close together to line the walls. Not all are masterworks, though many are.

The museum’s collection of Klimt kitsch records the impact the artist has had on Vienna’s image. Along with the predictable umbrellas, fridge magnets and ashtrays, such marvels as a Klimt toilet seat came to light through a Facebook campaign. I was amused to note that the display includes the Klimt-labeled wine sold in the museum’s shop -- a nice touch of self-irony.

The winner of the museum’s “Worst of Klimt” award went to a plastic egg that opens to show miniature “Kiss” figures which rotate to the tune of Elvis’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” Beautiful.

Two Viennese institutions have built platforms to make their Klimt frescoes more accessible to the public in honor of the anniversary. At the Secession, artist Gerwald Rockenschaub’s bright yellow construction allows viewers to see Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze” at eye level.

A bridge in the extravagant arcaded stairwell of the Kunsthistorisches Museum offers close-up views of decorative personifications of stylistic periods and regions that Klimt painted as a young man, working together with his brother Ernst and painting partner Franz Matsch.

“150 Years Gustav Klimt” runs at the Belvedere through Jan. 6, 2013. “Klimt: Up Close and Personal” is at the Leopold Museum until Aug. 27. The Wien Museum is showing “Klimt: The Wien Museum’s Collection” through Sept. 16. The Secession platform remains in place through Jan. 13, 2013, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum has extended “Face to Face With Gustav Klimt” through Jan. 6, 2013.

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on auctions and Craig Seligman on art.

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