Tag Archives: Klimt

The Long Road to Acceptance: LGBT Characters in Historical Fiction



“It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity. It even suggests that their self-made debasement is unavoidable, because they cannot save themselves.”

James Douglas on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, “A Book That Must Be Suppressed”, Sunday Express, 19 August 1928.

radclyffe hall

Radclyffe Hall, Author of ‘The Well of Loneliness’

It has been almost ninety years since the publication of Radclyffe Hall’s ground-breaking novel, The Well of Loneliness, the story of a young woman from an upper-class family who falls in love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver during World War I. Their relationship is met with abomination, and Stephen struggles to come to terms with the social isolation that follows.  Hall was at the pinnacle of her career when she wrote the novel, and risked ruin by doing so, but she hoped her writing would bring about better social understanding, and told her publisher at the time that “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world… So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction.”

The reader could be forgiven for missing the novel’s only sexual reference: “and that night, they were not divided,” but one man, James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, was so incensed that he embarked on a vicious campaign to rid the nation’s bookshelves of this ‘indecent publication’. In his editorial dated August 19th, 1928, he wrote that The Well of Loneliness only highlighted the need for society to “cleanse itself… of these lepers.” Children, he said, were most at risk from the dangers of this scandalous of book.

Despite significant support for Hall and her novel, the Home Secretary ordered publisher Jonathan Cape to withdraw it from sale, otherwise criminal proceedings would be brought. However, with all the publicity, demand for The Well of Loneliness was high, and it continued to be sold illicitly. An obscenity trial followed. The court ruled that all copies of the book should be destroyed and that the defendants should pay legal costs.

In the dark decades that followed, LGBT authors were often very careful about the characters they created and indeed their own private lives. Understandably so, when you consider that homosexuality between men wasn’t decriminalised until 1967 in England and Wales, even later in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Books which LGBT readers could identify with were difficult to come by. This was true not only in literature, but in television, film, and the music industry. I remember the first gay character on EastEnders, the first lesbian kiss between Beth and Margaret on Brookside, and the day Boy George exploded onto our television screens singing Karma Chameleon. I saw these people as trailblazers, who opened up a wealth of opportunity for LGBT voices to be heard.

As a writer, I am fortunate to live in a more enlightened society, where LGBT authors can write openly, from their own experience. Human beings, who happen to be LGBT are part of the fabric of society, and increasingly are being represented in literature, not only as protagonists but as characters incidental to the story, in a way we have never seen before, across every genre. No longer are our books placed in small sections in forward thinking bookshops, with a discreet sign saying LGBT Fiction.

It is a shame that some readers still find LGBT novels offensive. There are some wonderful writers who have received scathing reviews, not because of the quality of their work, but simply because of the LGBT content. I have yet to see a review berating a book for being too heterosexual! A couple of readers have said that they didn’t enjoy my novel The Women Friends: Selina because it contained lesbianism and bisexuality. In fact, the sex scenes make up only about three percent of the story. The rest of the novel centres around a young woman who leaves her troubled past, and moves to Vienna to model for the notorious artist Gustav Klimt. It is set against the backdrop of 1920s bohemian society and sinister developments in Europe leading up to World War II. There is much more to the story than the few paragraphs with sexual content.


The Women Friends: Selina by Emma Rose Millar and Miriam Drori

I was inspired to write the novel by Gustav Klimt’s sensuous masterpiece of the same name, (below). Nothing is known about the two women in the painting, but it is thought that they were lovers. The fate of the painting itself was a tragic one, and I wanted to reflect that in the story itself.


Gustav Klimt, (1917) The Women Friends

My favourite novels aren’t stories about lesbianism or bisexuality, but these themes usually run through the book to a greater or lesser extent. I love historical fiction; at no point in history has society been wholly heterosexual, and increasingly this is being reflected in literature. Moreover, I would argue that in historical fiction, the portrayal of LGBT characters is more important than in any other genre, precisely because of the nature of our histories. There are countless stories to be told, stories which previously would have been suppressed, because by telling them, people faced being shunned, ostracised, and in some cases, imprisoned or executed, as is still the case in many parts of the world.

The books that have influenced me the most are Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter.


In The Colour Purple, the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug is the catalyst which transforms Celie from a submissive, downtrodden woman, into one who is strong and fiercely independent. In Shug, Celie finds love for the first time since she was taken away from her sister, Nettie.

In Affinity, Margaret Prior’s feelings for disgraced spirit medium are shady and almost invisible. The story is a deeply sensual one, despite there being no sex in the entire novel.

The Sealed Letter is based on a real life Victorian scandal, a delicious tale of secrets, betrayal and forbidden love. An intriguing story of a courtroom drama and the appearance of a sealed letter whose unknown contents could destroy more than one life.

All three writers weave complex stories, in which lesbianism is only a part. The novels all highlight the choice women were faced with in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of remaining true to themselves, or conforming to what was considered the ‘social norm.’

The Well of Loneliness remains a controversial book, criticised for inspiring shame and self-loathing, and for portraying lesbian women as masculine figures. However, along with a handful of other books, it paved the way for many of the novels we know and love today.

Author Bio

Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham – a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son who keeps her very busy and very happy. Emma left school at 16 and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, laboratory technician and editorial assistant for a magazine, but now works part-time as an interpreter.

Emma writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards with Five Guns Blazing in 2014. Her novella The Women Friends: Selina, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published on December 1st, 2016 by Crooked Cat Books. She is currently writing her third novel, Delirium, a Victorian ghost story.

Emma is an avid fan of live music and live comedy and enjoys skating, swimming and yoga.

For more information visit her Amazon author page.



Behind Every Exquisite Thing…

Behind Every Exquisite Thing…

“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.



Nowhere is this truer than in Tammam Azzam’s Freedom Graffiti. In 2013, the artist superimposed Klimt’s best known masterpiece onto a war-scarred building in Syria – an eloquent comment on the war in his home country, and a passionate plea for peace.


Klimt’s original painting, (1907-08) took its inspiration from a line in Schiller’s 1785 poem, Ode to Joy: “This kiss is for all the world.” A very apt sentiment indeed in today’s political climate!


Azzam’s early works were characterised by a multi-media technique. Using rope, clothespins and other recycled objects, Azzam’s hybrid pieces experimented with depth and were inspired by the artist’s changing perceptions of specific urban environments.

Following the start of the uprising in Syria, Azzam turned his attentions to digital media and graphic art. He created visual statements on the conflict, which resonate with international viewers, seeing digital photography and street art as powerful and direct forms of protest that are difficult to suppress.

Azzam has drawn on paintings by artists such as Matisse, van Gogh and Dali, in an effort to spread his message: “We are all citizens of the same world.”


The Women Friends

The Women Friends

The Women Friends was one of Gustav Klimt’s final works. Nothing is known about the two women in the painting but it is believed they were a real couple.


Gustav Klimt, (1917) The Women Friends

Lesbian imagery played a role in Klimt’s catalogue of works since his 1904 painting Water Serpents. But while the water serpents are imaginary creatures, inhabiting a fantastical, underwater world, the women friends are part of the here and now, making it easier for the audience to identify with them.


Gustav Klimt, 1904, Water Serpents

Klimt’s 1913 painting, The Maidens also explores this theme. Here, womankind is shown with many different aspects to her identity of which sexuality is only one. She is entwined with other figures representing death and evolution into womanhood.


Gustav Klimt, (1913) The Maidens

Stylistically, in The Women Friends, Klimt achieved a flat visual plane, throwing off the three-dimensional verisimilitude of his earlier career. His appreciation of Japanese art with its ambiguous background / foreground relationship influenced this painting and his mosaic style paintings from his golden phase.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Gustav Klimt, (1907) Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

Like so much of Klimt’s late work, the painting is partially about space and the various illusions that art creates to deal with it.

Klimt’s Forests and Gardens

Klimt’s Forests and Gardens

Gustav Klimt is probably best known for his portraits of women. However, he also created many beautiful landscapes during his career.


Gustav Klimt Fir Forest, 1901

Tannenwald or Fir Forest the first of several in a series. The artist also depicted other types of trees using contrasting styles over the course of his career.


Gustav Klimt, Tree of Life, 1905

From his holiday home in Litzlberg, Klimt went for wandering around the woods for days on end, searching for the right spot to create his forest paintings. Here, the trees appear in groups on either side of the canvas; the small clearing in the middle to allowing a feeling of depth, albeit reduced, which draws the eye into the painting. The trunks are stylised: narrow with a strict vertical rhythm, suggesting entrapment – no way out; the glimpse of sky a whisper to the outside world. The series is as a study of how light and time affect natural objects. Tannenwald II, also painted in 1901 features a similar scene, with Klimt choosing to offer greater detail on the fir trees, and without the glade seen in his earlier work. Both paintings were completed in 1901.


Gustav Klimt, Fir Forest II, 1901

Tannenwald I and II were produced on square canvas, which is relatively rare for landscape painting but reflects how the artist was aiming to produce art which suited for exhibiting at that time.

Klimt’s landscapes express his wider concerns with biological growth and the cycle of life. Their dazzling decorative surfaces and abstracted motifs align him with emergent modernist tendencies. He later experimented with various styles for his landscape paintings, showcasing his diverse range of skill.


Gustav Klimt, The Park, 1909

The foliage in The Park 1909–10 is flattened while the trunks, diminishing in size give a feeling of depth. His earlier Country Garden with Sunflowers recalls the symbiosis of naturalism and ornament, and at first glance could be mistaken for one of his portraits of women.


Gustav Klimt, Country Garden With Sunflowers, 1906


Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen, 1889

Klimt’s landscapes are now a highly admired aspect of his oeuvre. However, he remains best known for his paintings of women, especially The Kiss and his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.



Gustav Klimt and Japanese Rinpa Tradition

Gustav Klimt and Japanese Rinpa Tradition

Gustav Klimt may never have set foot in Japan, but his enchantment with Japanese art and design was abundantly evident in his paintings.

In the late eighteenth century, Japonism swept through Europe, influencing the work of French artists like Van Gogh and Cezanne. For Klimt, whose early work was faithful to the principals of realism, these new stimuli gave rise to a change in style. In his later work we see flat visual planes, strong colours, patterned surfaces and linear outlines.


Gustav Klimt, Hope II, (1908)

He also began to incorporate Japanese textiles into his art. His long term friend, Emilie Flöge was a collector of Japanese textile designs and it is known that the pair created several dresses together.

Klimt particularly admired the Rinpa School, one of the major historical schools of Japanese painting.  The Rinpa School was founded in Kyoto in 1615 by artists Hon’ami Koetsu and Tawaraya Sotatsu who produced numerous works of ceramics, calligraphy and lacquerware, decorative fans, kimono textiles and folding screens. They also specialised in making decorative paper using calligraphy on gold and silver backgrounds.

During the decades that followed, the Rinpa school went through several revivals. In the late seventeenth century, brothers Ogata Korin and Otaga Kenzan began depicting nature by mixing numerous colours and hues on the surface to achieve unusual effects. They also made liberal use of gold, pearl and other precious substances. The style was characterised by flowers, birds, plants and flowers set against gold leaf, (below).

Perhaps Klimt’s most famaus painting from his ‘Golden Phase’ was the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, (below left), but he also used gold leaf in many of his other works including his Tree of Life, (below right), whose swirling pattern echoes Ogata Korin’s work.

Flowers and birds were also favourite motifs of Klimt’s. For example, in one of his last paintings, The Women Friends, (1917), the lovers are surrounded by the glorious phoenix, and symbols of doom: the raven and the red eyed swan.


Gustav Klimt, The Women Friends, (1917)

During his career, Gustav Klimt absorbed several influences and created a wholly unique style that changed and developed throughout his life. However, his association with Japanese art made a profound difference to his work and helped to shape the beautiful, ornate paintings that are celebrated to this day.


Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham – a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son who keeps her very busy and very happy. Emma left school at 16 and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, lab technician and editorial assistant for a magazine but now works part-time as an interpreter. Emma writes and historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori will be published in December 2016 by Crooked Cat Books.

Find Emma Rose Millar on Amazon


The Woman Behind Klimt’s Dresses: Emilie Louise Flöge


Gustav Klimt is perhaps best known for his golden swirls, bejewelled geometrics and glorious shades of lime, tangerine and cherry. His female subjects are draped in Japanese inspired fabrics and delicate mosaic prints. But were these dresses real? Yes indeed! Some were designed by Klimt himself, others by his long-standing companion, Emilie Flöge.


Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Emilie Flöge, (1902)

Emilie’s sister Helene was married to Gustav Klimt’s brother, Ernst Klimt. After his brother’s death in 1892, Gustav was made Helene’s guardian and spent a lot of time at the family home and holidaying with them at Lake Attersee. Emilie was eighteen at the time. The relationship between Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge remains a source of conjecture  but many experts agree that his painting The Kiss shows them as lovers.


Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, (1908)


Emilie Flöge was born in Vienna in 1874. She was a skilled seamstress who in 1899 won a dressmaking competition with her sister Pauline. The pair were commissioned to make a batiste dress for an exhibition.

Fast forward five years and Emilie and Pauline, together with their sister, Helene, set up a haute couture fashion house, Schwestern Flöge, in the capital. Their signature loose fitting, wide sleeved garments were worn without corsets. This new, less constricting style became known as Reform Dress, and allowed Viennese fashion to set itself apart from its Parisian counterpart. As the business grew, Schwestern Flöge hired eighty seamstresses, working behind the scenes of the stylish salon, where customers were courted and accounts settled. A dress from Schwestern Flöge was a sought after commodity in bohemian circles and could cost four times as much as one bought in traditional stores.


The Salon at Schwestern Flöge

The turn of the century saw all areas of art and design blossom. It was a time of change, of experimentation, in which Emilie, with her unconventional style and love of bold prints hoped to flourish. But while the haute couture dresses did moderately well, Emilie’s more rebellious avant garde designs did not sell. Although Klimt was painting high society ladies in Emilie’s most glorious creations, making sketches for her and designing alongside her, she never saw huge success or lived to see recognition for her designs.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, (1907)

With the Nazi invasion, Schwestern Flöge was forced to close its doors, but Emilie continued working on her dresses from home. At the end of the war though, a devastating fire broke out, destroying the building and her collections.

But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. It is doubtful Emilie ever knew how iconic her dresses would become, or ever imagined they would continue to influence fashion designers a hundred years later.

 Above Left: Photograph of Emilie Floge Wearing Striped Dress; Right Valentino Winter Collection 2015



Klimt and the Interpretation of Dreams



In the early twentieth century, Vienna was the medical capital of the world and the place where Sigmund Freud had come to practice the new science of psychoanalysis. Freud’s theories were hugely influential in the development of modern art. The notion of instinctual passions being stronger than reasonable interests, of human behaviour being driven by the unconscious sat ill at ease with conservative Viennese society. In The Interpretation of Dreams, (1899), Freud argued that the source of all immorality lay in the unconscious of every human being and that by analysing dreams, the individual psyche could be unlocked. Furthermore, he believed the universality of symbols in dreams and that distasteful images in the form of symbols could be associated by shape, colour, size and quantity.

Klimt’s work is rich in symbolism and often has a dreamlike, even nightmarish quality, portraying the psychological state of humanity, juxtaposing physical beauty with the dark, ugly features of the unconscious.


His Beethoven Frieze, (1901) for example takes the eye on a stunning visual journey, beginning with the floating Genii searching the Earth and quickly becoming sinister, following the storm-wind giant, Typheous and images representing sickness, madness death, lust and wantonness. Then the knight, offering hope, with the journey ending in elation. The women in this section have their eyes closed as if exalted, in rapturous appreciation of the arts as they surround the two figures caught in an embrace. The masks above the figures though suggests that this ecstatic state is a precarious one.


The frieze illustrates the human yearning for happiness against external forces and internal weaknesses. It is also a reflection on Viennese society at the time. Achievements in science, technology and industrialisation had opened up a wealth of opportunity, however, there were huge concerns about the limits of mechanisation and urbanism. Intellectual and cultural achievements were overshadowed by political unrest, virulent anti-Semitism and movements against the emancipation of women and minorities.

Jurisprudence, (1903) is one of Klimt’s darkest paintings, both stylistically and psychologically. An elderly man is held fast by a giant octopus, an unearthly creature reminiscent of a nightmare. The man bows to three naked female figures, two of whom seem to be in dreamlike states. The central female figure stares out with cold eyes, as if in a trance. The man appears hopeless and vulnerable, passively awaiting his punishment. At the top of the picture stand three semi-clothed women holding the book of law and a sword. The rule of law here seems cruel and irrational, indifferent to humanity.


Klimt’s figures seem to occupy a realm somewhere between a dream and reality. His work is a celebration of life, yet symbols of death are never far away. In a bourgeoisie society of opera and coffee houses with a sinister undercurrent bubbling just underneath the surface, artists and intellectuals became torn between reality and illusion. In Klimt’s work there is a new, fragile reality, a utopian dream about to be shaken to its core, an ominous foreshadowing of events which were to take place in Europe over the following decades.

Freud and Klimt are intrinsically linked. Both freed their chosen fields – psychology and art – from their biological, anatomical chains, seeking out a new truth which centred on the self. Klimt’s paintings are a sublime illumination of the culture in which Freud’s psychoanalysis arose.