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An exquisite, mesmerizing work of historical fiction
on 12 July 2005
The Painted Kiss is a truly exquisite novel and a most impressive debut by author Elizabeth Hickey. While I do read a good bit of historical fiction, most of what I read is built around historical events; this novel, though, is intensely personal, the imagined story of a most unusual relationship between artist Gustav Klimt and the younger Emilie Floge (who became a successful fashion designer in Vienna). The cover art depicts Klimt's 1902 portrait of Emilie, and a number of Klimt's best-known artistic creations inform the narrative of this wonderfully lush work of modern literature. It is in some ways a disturbing read, as the relationship under the microscope is far from ideal, and the reader cannot help but sympathize greatly with Emilie as her character narrates the story from her first meeting with Klimt as a curious 12-year-old girl to Klimt's death and beyond, culminating in 1945 war-torn Austria. As I mentioned, I don't normally read novels of this type, and I must say that I was mesmerized by the entire story. Hickey is an artist in her own right, an artist of words, and she captures Emilie's soul as deeply and hypnotically as any portrait ever could, including the haunting portrait that graces the cover.
I know next to nothing about art, so I found this book's story of Viennese art history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century most informative. The author works many of Gustav Klimt's portraits, and the women who posed for them, into the novel, and I would encourage the reader to seek out the images of these portraits online or in art gallery books - Klimt's actual historical portraits make for the most vivid of visual aids when it comes to immersing yourself in this story. Hickey has done an impressive job researching the principals as well as Viennese society and its surprisingly complex culture of artists. Along with Klimt, you also meet two of his protégés in the art nouveau Viennese movement, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. The proclivity of these artists to paint nude women made them controversial artists, and Klimt further established his reputation by pioneering the Secession Movement in Vienna.
Emilie Floge first met the older Klimt as a 12-year-old, and she was less than excited when her father arranged for her to take art lessons from the poor, unknown artist. She and her sister Helene were exposed to a completely new world in his art studio, and Emilie inevitably fell in love or something much like it with Klimt. He returned her feelings in an unquantifiable manner, but even Emilie realized fairly early on that he was a philanderer who did more than merely paint many of the society ladies who posed for portraits with him. It was a dysfunctional relationship between a man who would never commit or change his ways and a self-conscious young lady who could never pull away from his influence. It's generally understood that Emilie was Klimt's mistress, but their relationship, as represented in The Painted Kiss, is much more complicated than that; sex actually plays a minor (albeit disturbing) part in their relationship as imagined by Elizabeth Hickey. Emilie is a fascinating character in her own right, enjoying great success as a fashion designer in Vienna and maintaining a place in society despite the open secret of her personal relationship with Klimt. Even twenty-seven years after his death, in the midst of the travails of 1945 Austria, Klimt still dominates the life of Emilie.
The artist does the reader a service by mentioning several of the changes she made in the historical facts of her subjects' lives. It can't be easy creating a story around a relationship when history records very little of the details, and I think Hickey has done a masterful job. While I never came to completely understand the motivations of the two main characters, I was perpetually mesmerized by the story that played out before me. This novel inevitably draws comparisons to Girl With a Pearl Earring; not having read that novel, I can't compare the two. I can, however, declare that The Painted Kiss is an incredibly rich, perfectly enchanting work of modern literature that I found absorbing and truly magnificent.