Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) is hardly a household name, but she surely merits greater recognition for her contributions to the modernist movement. Her striking paintings captured the essence of modernism and the Art Deco spirit in the interwar years when Paris was the art capital of the world. In addition to instantly recognizable canvases that capture the combination of wealth and decadence that characterized the French capital in the 1920s and 1930s, de Lempicka led an independent, colorful life that continues to intrigue.
As its title suggests, the exhibition “Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco Icon,” on view at the Royal Academy of Arts (May 15-August 30) and Kunstforum in Vienna (September 16-January 2) shows how this artist came to symbolize the chic designs and freewheeling lifestyles associated with the Art Deco movement. The show, which, alas, will not travel to the United States, comprises 55 paintings. They confirm the striking originality and enduringly sensuous appeal of de Lempicka’s art. There is a useful exhibition catalog.
Born Tamara Gurwick-Gorska in either Moscow or Warsaw (authorities are divided on the site), de Lempicka was the daughter of Boris Gorski, attorney for a French trading company, and Malvina Decler Gorska, who came from a prominent family and had studied abroad. Her wealthy Polish mother and Russian father gave the strong-willed child a privileged, cultured upbringing.
After attending school in Lausanne, in 1916, the 18-year-old married a tall, dark St Petersburg lawyer, Tadeusz Lampicki, who had a reputation as a Don Juan with a fast-paced lifestyle. After a few years of the good life in the imperial capital, the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution forced the couple to emigrate to Paris.
While her husband turned sour as he struggled to make a living, de Lempicka took up painting to earn money. A daughter, Kizette, was born around 1920.
De Lempicka first took instruction from decorative painter Maurice Denis, who influenced the immaculate structure of her mature works. More importantly, she studied with Cubist painter Andre Lhote, who advocated executing careful figure studies followed by precise application of paint, often using pure color. Lhote’s guidance and de Lempicka’s affinity for the classical simplicity of the Old Masters she had seen in Italy laid the groundwork for her own style of freely interpreted Synthetic Cubism.
Her astutely composed paintings made little attempt to create three-dimensional effects, utilizing instead hard, angular lines and shapes that contrasted with rounded, soft forms. Her glossy, highly stylized view of the world captured the sense of modernity and machine-age progress that permeated Parisian social circles and animated the Art Deco movement.
De Lempicka will be forever identified with Art Deco, a style that swept across Europe and America in the 1920s and 1930s. Drawing its name from the celebrated Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, conducted in Paris in 1925, Art Deco, according to its adherents, sought to promote design and use of objects created by craftsman rather than being mass-produced. Sleek, streamlined forms – furniture, interior designs, fashion and costume and architecture – achieved a chic cachet in the years leading up to World War II.
“Art Deco, 1910-1939,” organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and on view at the Legion of Honor of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco through July 4, will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, August 22-January 9. Through some 300 objects, this acclaimed exhibition examines sources of inspiration and the global impact of the popular style.
A highlight is Lempicka’s sensual, stylized “Jeune Fille en vert,” circa 1927, depicting a sultry, curvy young woman in a green dress tipping her wide-brimmed white hat with her white-gloved right hand.
De Lempicka – “la belle Polonaise” – as she became known, worked the Paris party circuit hard, dressing to the nines and aggressively seeking out well-known artists, writers, entertainers and aristocrats, many of whose portraits she eventually painted. “She loved art and high society in equal measure,” said French writer Jean Cocteau.
In her single-minded quest for success, de Lempicka employed her allure and beauty to advance her career and her involvement in Parisian social circles. She dazzled observers with her elegant appearance and engaging personality.
Reporters resorted to hyperbole to describe her hands, hair, clothes and overall message. “Tamara,” reported one observer breathlessly, “is tall…, as well as being slender and smooth, but provided in the appropriate places with the necessary curves.”
De Lempicka was keenly aware of the devastating effects of her looks and manner on men and women. They attracted lovers of both sexes. “Tamara could resist everything except temptation,” writes her biographer, Gilles Néret.
Her most famous painting, “Autoportrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti),” 1925, is in a private collection. It shows a sultry de Lempicka, wearing gloves and a helmet, behind the wheel of a green sports car. Commissioned for a cover-page by the female editor of a German fashion journal, who admired how “wonderful” the artist looked in her own car, the painting became an overnight sensation, hailed as the image of the emancipated, modern woman.
“As time went by,” says Néret, the picture “came to be seen as the perfect portrait of the age. From then on, the artist was identified with machinery.” Indeed, as late as 1978 The New York Times referred to de Lempicka as the “steely-eyed goddess of the automobile age.”
A Cecil Beaton photograph of a glamorous de Lempicka in the 1930s suggests a striking resemblance to the elegance and style of the famously elusive Greta Garbo, whom the artist knew.
De Lempicka would often party long into the night and then work assiduously in her studio on her paintings. According to her daughter, from the outset of her sojourn in Paris, when she was relatively poor, de Lempicka had a goal: “After every two paintings sold she would buy a bracelet, until one day she would have covered herself in diamonds and jewels from her wrists to her shoulders.”
After first applying her unusual contemporary style to still lifes and portraits of daughter Kizette and friends, de Lempicka began to acquire patrons and sitters among the elite of Paris. Before long, her portrait paintings were in great demand in Europe and America, with patrons ranging from society hostess and notorious “amazone,” the Dutchess de la Salle to Dr Boucard, a rich scientist who commissioned likenesses of himself, his wife and his daughter.
De Lempicka’s highly mannered portraits, usually featuring her signature combination of soft, rounded forms against architectural objects and lines, reflected the sophisticated urbanity of sitters such as the “Marquis d’ Affitto,” 1925, “Prince Eristoff,” 1925, the “Grand Duke Gabriel,” 1917, and “Count Vettor Marcello,” 1933. These likenesses are characterized by the haughty expression typical of Parisian aristocrats.
De Lempicka’s subjects, particularly clothed women, were often dramatically lit and showcased in closely cropped compositions so that they filled the canvas with a powerful, monumental presence. Her unique, shimmering style, as exemplified by “The Blue Scarf,” 1930, “The Telephone II,” 1930, and “Portrait of Mrs M,” 1932, was ideally suited to capturing the urbanity and fashionable clothes of her well-groomed sitters.
Through her mentor Lhote, de Lempicka came to admire the style and subject matter of the great French neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). The master of line and balances, Ingres used distortion to demonstrate relationships between forms and to express emotional or dramatic content. De Lempicka’s “Women Bathing,” circa 1929, depicting seven nude, intertwined bodies, echoes the even larger group of voluptuous women gathered in close proximity in Ingres’s famed “Turkish Bath,” 1862.
“The Dream,” 1927, and the highly erotic “Beautiful Rafaela,” 1927, reflect the artist’s fascination with the female form and spirit. In the powerfully sensual “Andromeda,” 1927, the ample curves of the virginal heroine contrast with the angular buildings of the modern city in the background. These works reflect Ingres’s aphorism: “Beautiful forms: flat surfaces with curves.”
De Lempicka’s luscious nudes were based on models with solid, strong – yet feminine – figures. Filled with elegance, nonchalance and erotic appeal, they suggest the sensuality and vitality of the circles in which the artist moved.
In the mid-1920s de Lempicka dallied with Gabriele d’Annunzio, the celebrated Italian novelist, dramatist and lover, but neither a project portrait nor affair materialized. After years of bitter relations, the artist and her husband were divorced in 1928, leaving unfinished her sad, soulful portrait of her ex-mate.
In 1933, de Lempicka married the handsome Baron Raoul Kuttner, a wealthy Hungarian and avid collector of her works. He provided her with what she always craved: a title and lots of money. At this stage in her career, de Lempicka’s art was so popular that she declined a considerable number of potential commissions.
The couple lived for years in New York, but after her husband died in 1962, de Lempicka relocated for a time to Houston, where her daughter lived, and finally in 1974 to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where the artist died in 1980 at age 82. In line with her mother’s wishes, Kizette scattered her ashes over the crater of the still-active volcano, Mount Popocatepetl.
De Lampicka’s reputation remained in eclipse for years. A Paris retrospective in 1972 hinted at lingering interest in the work of her younger years.
The appeal and nostalgic memories evoked by the current exhibition suggest it is time for a renewal of interest in the artist whose bold technique and vivid palette captured the modernist spirit of her day and made her the quintessential Art Deco artist. Her glossy, astutely executed canvases continue to provoke and fascinate, recalling the heady days when the atmosphere of affluence and decadence made Paris both famous and infamous.
“From a hundred pictures, mine will always stand out,” the painter once declared. She was right on the mark – her work is unique and memorable. This eye-opening display should earn for Tamara de Lempicka the more prominent place she deserves among modernist artists.
The comprehensive and richly illustrated catalog accompanying the show contains 168 pages and 125 full color reproductions. Essays by Alain Blondel, author of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, and Ingried Brugger, director of the Kunstforum, Vienna, examine de Lempicka’s oeuvre within the context of European art of the 1920s and 30s. Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc in the United States, it sells for $60. Gilles Nerét’s fully illustrated, 80-page Tamara de Lempicka, 1898-1980, published by Taschen in 2000, offers useful insights into the painter’s life and art.