Three years later (in 2008), Hickey published a second novel—with the quite misleading title of The Wayward Muse. This one is (too cutely) described as being “pulled straight from the canvasses of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” The book is said to “paint a vivid portrait of the mysterious and beautiful Jane Burden, the Pre-Raphaelite icon.” It actually does, too.
The titles of both books are unsatisfactory, but The Painted Kiss is especially so, saddling the novel with a quite misleading luridity. The title, The Painted Kiss, is really just a collapsing of the fact that the novel deals with the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and his most famous work, The Kiss (1907-8), which is indeed “painted.”
The friendship between Klimt and Emilie Floge was a lifelong one (though Emilie outlived Klimt by 34 years, dying in 1952) and the book traces its always affectionate, but sometimes heartbreaking course. Klimt was Emilie’s drawing teacher when she was a little girl. Emile modelled for Klimt when she was still very young, made love with him (a couple of times), fell in love with him for life, and died holding his memory and his achievements in her heart like a lamp, inviolate. Klimt loved her all along, but was so endlessly, exuberantly sexual—as well as being philosophically committed to a certain vigorous onmi-phallicism—that it was apparently quite impossible for him to commit himself to her the way she wanted him to. He had lots and lots of women. Emilie watched and suffered and tried to understand.
If the novel were only about this classic male-female non-alignment, it might have made for a tedious read indeed. But this Vienna in 1886, and Klimt and Emile are both caught up in events that are even wilder and more seismic than their own desires (or lack of them)—in the tortured beginnings of cultural modernism, for example—the “Make It New” imperatives now informing the visual arts (Klimt, Kokoschka, Egon Schiele), literature (Karl Kraus), architecture (Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann), music (Mahler, Schonberg), philosophy and psychology (Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud). Ideas crowded the air.
If Elizabeth Hickey seems uneasy writing about sex—and she does—she’s really pretty good writing about at art and design. Here’s the very young Emilie struggling through a drawing lesson with Klimt: he has asked her, as an exercise, to draw a brick. Not a bouquet of flowers or an apple, but a brick. When she makes her first brick-drawing her teacher is less than impressed:
“Are you finished?” he said. I nodded. “Interesting,” he said thoughtfully. He picked up the paper and looked at it closely. “That’s really what you saw?” “Yes sir,” I said. “That’s what I saw.” “All right.” He smiled. “Your next assignment is to look at the brick for twenty minutes, and then draw it again.”
Eventually she begins to discern more of the essential brick-ness of the brick. “It was red. A dark orange-red, like a stewed tomatoes. Parts of it looked burned black, and parts of it looked charred to asg. It was pockmarked. There were grooves on one end of it…I held the charcoal wrong, he said. It wasn’t a fistful of money; it was a skein of silk to be unwound….”
Hickey is good at writing about Klimt’s painting and his agonizing over it. She’s even better about the birth of Emilie’s career as a couturier: “Little by little,” Emilie says, “I learned to balance top and bottom, front and back. I internalized the mathematical equations that dictated that something was right. I created each piece in my mind, on my own body, backlit so tat the silhouette was all I could see. Or I took a piece of fabric and a dressmaker’s dummy and started opining and unpinning and repining. The floor of my room was covered with pins, and Pauline would forget and puncture her feet on them. The macabre dummy, headless and stitched up the front and back like a wounded soldier, repeatedly frightened us when we came into the room at night….”
The jacket of the novel shows Klimt’s full-length portrait if Emilie, wearing a dress of her own design: “On the canvas, the dress I had made was unrecognizable to me. It was royal purple and moved toward the floor like a river; aquamarine blue fish with golden eyes swan lazily down it while the silver beetles on the jacket pilled tightly. The attenuated figure inside the dress had fabric wrapped tightly around her slender neck. She had a bare décolleté and long slender fingers wrappe3d around her jutting hip. Her dress tapered off into the bottom of the picture, leaving her footless and bound. The face was mine, but it was blurry and indistinct, the cloud of hair like my own on a rainy day.”