(1898 - 1980)



When someone mentions the Roaring Twenties, it conjures up the Jazz Age, flappers, Prohibition, the Charleston, gangsters, The Great Gatsby, Mary Pickford, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Designers and architects also remember the 20's for the Chrysler Building, the luxury liner Normandie, and the interior of Radio City Music Hall, all outstanding examples of the decorative arts style called Art Deco.

To many designers of jewelry, furniture, clothes, fabrics, and ceramics, Art Deco of the 20's with its geometric motifs and bright, bold colors represents the best and purest forms of that decorative art period.

Art Deco, a classical, symmetrical, rectilinear style that reached its high point between 1925-1935, drew its inspiration from such serious art movements as Cubism, Futurism, and the influence of the Bauhaus. In Paris, it was a dominant art form of the 1920-1930 period.

Of all the artists pursuing the style "Arts Decoratifs", one of the most memorable was Tamara de Lempicka.

She was born Maria Gorska of well-to-do parents in turn-of- the-century Poland. After her mother and father divorced, her wealthy grandmother spoiled her with clothes and travel. By age 14 she was attending school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Tamara vacationed in St. Petersburg with her Aunt Stephanie, whose millionaire banker husband had their home decorated by the famous French firm Maison Jansen. All this high living gave the young girl an idea of how she wanted to live and what her future should be.


Adão e Eva


Soon after Russia and Germany declared war in 1914, she fell in love with the most handsome bachelor in Warsaw, a lawyer named Taduesz Lempicki. She set her sights on him and two years later they were married in fashionable St. Petersburg. Her banker uncle provided the dowry, and Lempicki, who had no money of his own, was delighted to marry this beautiful l6 year old girl.

A year later, Taduesz was arrested by the Bolsheviks, and Tamara braved the Russian Revolution to free him, using her good looks to charm favors from the necessary officials. The couple fled to Paris and that's where the story of Tamara de Lempicka's fantastic life really begins.

Now known as Tamara de Lempicka, the refugee studied art and worked day and night. She became a well-known portrait painter with a distinctive Art Deco manner. Quintessentialy French, Deco was the part of a exotic, sexy, and glamourous Paris that epitomized Tamara's living and painting style.

Between the wars, she painted portraits of writers, entertainers, artists, scientists, industrialists, and many of Eastern Europe's exiled nobility. Her daughter, Kizette de Lempica-Foxhall wrote in her biograpy of Tamara De Lempica Passion By Design, "She painted them all, the rich, the successful, the renowned -- the best. And with many she also slept. The work brought her critical acclaim, social celebrit and considerable wealth.

At the threat of a second World War, she left Paris for America. She went to Hollywood, to become the "Favorite Artist of the Hollywood Stars". She and her second husband, Baron Raoul Kuffner, one of her earliest and wealthiest patrons, moved into American film director King Vidor's former house in Beverly Hills.

The Baron and Tamara moved to New York City in 1943, to a stunning apartment at 322 East 57th Street, in whose two-story north light studio she continued painting in the old style for another year or two. Tamara decorated the apartment with the antiques she and the Baron had rescued from his Hungarian estate. When the war was over, she reopened her famous Paris studio in the rue Mechain, redecorated in rococo style.

Friends then asked her to decorate apartments in New York City with her individual touch. After the Baron's death in 1962, she moved to Houston to be near her daughter Kizette. She began painting with a palette knife, much in vogue at the time.

The Iolas Gallery in New York exhibited her newest and latest paintings in 1962, but the critics were indifferent, there were not many buyers, and she swore to herself that she would never exhibit again.

The advent of Abstract Expressionism and her advancing age halted her career in the 1950's and 1960's. Somewhat forgotten, her work ignored, she continued to paint, storing her canvases, new and old, in an attic and a warehouse.

In 1966, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs mounted a commemorative exhibition in Paris called "Les Annees '25". Its success created the first serious interest in Art Deco.

This inspired a young man named Alain Blondel to open the Galerie du Luxembourg and launch a major retrospective of Tamara de Lempicka. It was a revelation in the art world and was to have been followed by an exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery in New York City but Tamara, ever imperious, made too many demands on how the exhibit was to be mounted, and the curator at Knoedler walked away. Gradually, as Art Deco and figurative painting came into favor again, she was rediscovered by the art world .

In 1978 she moved to Mexico permanently, buying a beautiful house in Cuernavaca called Tres Bambus, built by a Japanese architect in a chic neighborhood. She despaired of growing old and in her last years sought the company of young people. She mourned at the loss of her beauty and was cantankerous to the end.

Tamara de Lempicka died in her sleep on March 18, 1980 with her daughter Kizette at her side. Her wish to be cremated and have her ashes spread on the top of the volcano Popocatepetl was carried out.



Tubular belles

Tamara de Lempicka's life was sensational... so are her biographer Laura Claridge's claims for her art

Laura Cumming

Sunday March 26, 2000

Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence
Laura Claridge
Bloomsbury £25, pp436




There is a nude by Tamara de Lempicka, now owned by Jack Nicholson, that summarises her deco style in one metallic sweep. It's a painting of an odalisque, reclining in narcissistic rapture, one arm casually flung behind her head. The pose is traditional, but the arm is a polished tube, the body a gleaming auto with haunches like fenders and hubcaps for breasts.

Run your eyes over this model, the picture leers, note that streamlined bodywork, those red enamel lips. No artist has ever made the equation between cars and women quite so explicit. Soft porn, hard chrome - that's the Lempicka nude.

La Belle Rafaela is described by Laura Claridge as the supreme example of Lempicka's 'painterly genius'. Claridge is a hardcore fan, along with collectors like Nicholson, Madonna and Luther Vandross, and her biography is a strategic campaign to restore Lempicka as 'one of the twentieth century's most important artists'.

Since she believes that Lempicka's art has been overshadowed by the story of her life, you might think that a biography of this astonishingly vainglorious socialite was not the place to start. But Claridge is no fool. In America, where this book was first published, the only way to get art history on to the nightstands of Hollywood and Manhattan is to wrap it up in a sensational life.

Tamara de Lempicka was born in Moscow around 1895 - she preferred Warsaw in 1902 - to a family of Polish-Russian aristocrats. In 1916, she married the rich tsarist Tadeusz Lempicki and they might have lived an entire life of sybaritic leisure if the Bolshevik Revolution hadn't exiled them to Paris the following year. But communism, as Claridge notes, was the making of Lempicka, who discovered everything she needed for her art in Paris - Italian masterpieces in the Louvre, modernism, art deco, ritzy fashion. La Belle Rafaela is the typical composite: lighting by Caravaggio, tubism by Fernand Leger, lipstick by Chanel.


Lempicka's 1929 self-portrait as a vamp in a green Bugatti is generally considered to epitomise the jazz-age woman; it was later used on the cover of Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point. Forget likeness: Lempicka looks like every other one of her tubular belles. But there is a rapacity in those hooded eyes that seems to sum up the real woman, who could never have enough sex, cash, food or fame.

In Paris, Lempicka slept with actresses, prostitutes, ambassadors and sailors. She drank gin fizzes with deposed royals, threw colossal parties where naked girls were hired as human caviare dishes and worked at least as hard on her media profile as her art. When Lempicki left her, she replaced him with a Hungarian millionaire who doled out the money and asked nothing.

Baron Kuffner arranged her second escape, to America in 1939, where they hired King Vidor's former home in Beverly Hills before settling in a palatial duplex on New York's Fifth Avenue. Lempicka took to Manhattan with extraordinary glee, getting her name in all the gossip columns as the 'Baroness with the Brush'. Until abstract expressionism conquered the market in the Fifties, her machine-age style still held good among the rich and famous subjects of her portraits. As a social climber, her only rival was Andy Warhol, with whom she later claimed a friendship.

It wasn't true, of course, any more than her 'relationship' with Greta Garbo or her singlehanded invention of art deco. Lempicka was a dreadful liar, pretending for years that her daughter was her sister so she could fib about her age. Sometimes, she denied the child's existence: 'I have no children; my children are my paintings.' Kizette Lempicka was ignored, rebuked or kicked by her mother even into middle age.

Claridge has had a rough time with Lempicka, too. There are very few letters, no journals and only a handful of living sources, most of them creepy roués or crawling dealers. Claridge is a meticulous, scholarly and sympathetic biographer who would love to find evidence of Lempicka's grief when Kuffner died but is reduced to naming the florist for the funeral. Indeed, Lempicka only comes into focus at the end of the book and then, I'm afraid, in the words of a journalist who interviewed this still-glamorous termagant at her final home in Mexico.

But Lempicka's art is the true justification for this biography and here Claridge is ecstatic in her estimation. She raves about Lempicka's dodgy drawing, compares her with Hopper and Rivera, speaks of her in the same breath as Bellini and Vermeer. Lempicka's undeniable gift for graphic illustration is continuously downplayed in the rush to emphasise the dubious originality of her painting.

Claridge even proposes that the history of modernism be revised to accommodate the uniqueness of her genius. Here the biographer outflanks the subject. Not even Lempicka herself would have made quite such extravagant claims for her art.




Hello to sailors, sapphists, and a topaz as big as a fist

Tamara de Lempicka: a life of deco and decadence by Laura Claridge (Bloomsbury, £25, 436pp)

18 March 2000


Tamara de Lempicka worked with precision. "My paintings are finished from this little corner to this little corner," she wrote. "Everything is finished." She is best remembered for the portraits she did in Paris in the 1920s, of assertive female nudes with limbs entwined and faces fused. They startle because of the contrast between clarity of form and ambiguity of relationship.

Legend has it that she herself was a helluva girl. No previous biography has appeared. The reason for this is a lack of letters, journals and diaries, by or about her. Laura Claridge is undeterred.




For source material she has used Lempicka's prosy autobiographical pieces, five books of press clippings about her shows, anecdotes from her daughter Kizette Foxhall, what must have been hours on the phone with embalmed White Russian émigrés who perhaps brushed shoulders with "one of the century's most dramatic and imposing personalities", and "Tamara's ghost" - who encouraged the enterprise with "a sudden guttural chuckle" in the author's ear.

God knows what the ghost was laughing about. It ought to have insisted on a better book than this. Claridge's structure is from birth to death. Between these vague events (was it 1895 or 1898, and did Lempicka's nurse murder her, or not?) all is speculation, hearsay, gush and irritation.

No "ordinary woman", we are told, "could stare at a man's trousered crotch with Tamara's icy elegance, a gaze that the seductress would follow with a long drag on her ebony cigarette holder." How on earth did Laura Claridge know? I turned to the footnote (101 of chapter 3). "Told to the author by the very gracious Alexander Chodkieweitz in a lengthy, delicate and sometimes awkward phone conversation."

Chodkieweitz also remembered that Lempicka's "favourite sexual activity was to be caressed over her very colourful, very excitable nipples and genitals by a beautiful young woman, while she performed similar activities on the most handsome sailor in the group. After such nocturnal stimulations, she returned home full of confidence and insight - and cocaine - and in a frenzy painted until six or seven am. After several hours of sleep and a quick breakfast with Kizette, she resumed her daily routine of art classes and café socialising before preparing to begin her night life anew."

Then there is testimony from "the cynical George Schoenbrunn", who told the author that Lempicka smelled and left derisory tips in four-star restaurants. And Countess Maria Suzpuchiana who, from the Hotel Capri in October 1997, revealed that Lempicka went to seedy Paris night-clubs 70 years previously "fondling quite openly a beautiful working-class boy one night and a girl the next". Such anecdotes lead Claridge to assert that "no one could fetishize sex or orchestrate desire as well as [Lempicka]".

This is one way of writing biography. I searched the tosh for what might be true about Lempicka, beyond the strength and presence of her work, insufficiently represented here with only 16 plates. She was born in Moscow of Polish and Russian/Jewish parents. Her family name was Gorski. When she was 15 she met Tadeusz Lempiki. "When Tamara encountered Tadeusz at the costume ball in 1911, he had recently graduated from law school and was now free to frolic."

They married in 1917, then went to Paris with their baby daughter to escape the Bolsheviks. She determined to earn her living from her work. She copied Michelangelo and Botticelli to learn technique and in the Twenties painted those nudes that fill the canvas, without background, sculpted and hefty.

Her work was well-received in the 1925 Art Déco exhibition in Paris and in solo exhibitions. She seemed not to figure in the well-documented salon life of famous lesbians of the time, such as Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney or Winnaretta Singer. She said she kept a detachment from café life because she was busy working.

Tadeusz left her in 1927. He went to Poland and married another woman. In Lempicka's valediction portrait he wears an overcoat and, hat in hand, turns his back on the city. After Tadeusz, she married Baron Raoul Kuffner de Dioszegh, who liked to hunt and attend to his land holdings. He bought her paintings between 1929 and 1933 and made her rich. Her modernist house in rue Méchain was of glass and chrome, with her initials woven into the cushions and a dining table for 20.

Before the Second World War, she and the Baron moved to America. In the Forties she painted still lives, inspired by Dutch and Flemish art, but little interest was evinced in them. She had solo retrospective exhibitions at respectable galleries, but seemed to move from painting to a leisured life.

Her Manhattan apartment cost a quarter of a million dollars in 1942 and was filled with gilt furniture and gold drapes. She liked her luggage to match her limousine, and in photographs looks like the vulgar rich. She had posh houses in Havana, Palm Springs, Manhattan and Paris. In old age she was a bit of a fright, bedecked in floral dresses with matching hats, and too much gold.

As for her moods and feelings, or who she was in any living sense, it is hard to know. According to Laura Claridge she "had a probable manic-depressive alternation in her mental cycles", "would sink into a panicked silence at the very mention of communism", and had "an intuitive response to beauty and the realm of the senses".

It is also not clear what form she gave to the decadence and lesbianism suggested by her work. It would be interesting to find out what was going on in the portraits she painted and in her private relationships.

The poet Gabriele D'Annunzio wrote saucy letters to her and gave her a topaz the size of a fist, but he did the same to Romaine Brooks and Radclyffe Hall. She had some kind of intrigue with Greta Garbo, but so did Cecil Beaton.

Laura Claridge states that one of Lempicka's models in Paris, Ira Perrot, "was possibly the major romantic attachment of her life", but divulges nothing of this relationship. Such assertions do not recreate Lempicka. But, whoever she was, glitzy people like Madonna and Barbra Streisand now pay millions of dollars for her bold, sensuous, forceful paintings.

Diana Souhami's 'Gertrude and Alice' and 'Greta and Cecil' have been republished by Weidenfeld


Portrait of a far from still life

Tamara de Lempicka by Laura Claridge, (Bloomsbury £25)

26 March 2000



Although I spent four years at the Chelsea School of Art, I had never heard of Tamara de Lempicka until I read Laura Claridge's biography. Her reputation has been undeservedly ignored. "No doubt art histories would treat the painter less skittishly if she had been attached to a struggling, significant male painter," writes Claridge. "From the end of World War One until the 1960s, no major female painter would succeed commercially unless she was linked to a prominent male artist whose interest in her was sexual as well as professional."

Tamara was born at the end of the 19th century in Moscow. She was from an aristocratic Polish family and had some Jewish blood, a fact she chose to conceal, together with her age and birthplace. She married Tadeusz Lempicki, by whom she had a daughter, Kizette. She escaped the Bolshevik Revolution at 20 or so, with the help of a Swedish consul who forged papers for her and later got her husband out of the country in return for sex. This was the first of a long series of liaisons. Eventually she was reunited with her family in Paris, where she became an artist almost by chance. While most of the aristocratic émigrés made a living by modelling, she realised her body was too curvaceous, so she took art lessons instead.


Lempicka's early paintings were signed with the masculine sounding T de Lempitsky. They are cubist works in the manner of Léger, but with a sensual sheen to the skin that is reminiscent of Ingres or Renaissance Italian painters. While allying herself to modernism, Lempicka liked to use old techniques, pricking out her outlines on canvases or panels, heavily coated with gesso. Her monumental nudes fetch the highest prices these days - Lempicka was an admirer of the human form.

While she sold paintings, she was also socialising frenetically: "What other housewife sniffed as much cocaine? Or danced with her pelvis grinding into whatever man or woman partnered her? Nor could any ordinary woman stare at a man's trousered crotch with Tamara's icy elegance." Tadeusz, the cuckolded husband, turned into a sullen wife-beater and eventually left her for a more average marriage. There is a striking portrait of him, minus his wedding ring: The Unfinished Man.

Tamara's second marriage, to the Baron Kuffner, seems to have been happier. He respected her as an artist and bankrolled her extravagant lifestyle. They both travelled and had their own sexual partners, strings of them. He sailed or hunted while she dressed flamboyantly, painted and partied. An obsession with food and sex runs through Lempicka's life and work. Sometimes she ate the still lifes she was supposed to be painting. At parties, in her lesbian phase, she indulged in midnight meals of food arranged artistically on the bodies of her girlfriends.

As Europe went to war, the Kuffners emigrated to Hollywood, a congenially decadent scene. Though Lempicka eventually left California to live on the East Coast, her work has frequently appealed to stars. In later years, Madonna, Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand were among the discerning few to recognise its quality.

Lempicka's style continued to change and develop throughout the following decades. But her glossy still lifes and her thick palette knife paintings were less admired than the early work. As Lempicka aged, she had to come to terms with both loss of looks and loss of artistic reputation. Her last years were spent in a house in Mexico where she had hoped her daughter would join her. Although she loved Kizette, she had dominated her throughout her life while lavishing money on her. As a kind of blackmail she made a series of wills, sometimes cutting her out completely. In the final one, half her paintings were left to a young Mexican artist, Victor Contreras, who was with her at the end. He had the task of scattering her ashes from a helicopter into Mount Popocatépetl. Claridge ends somewhat sentimentally with a vision of him: "Staring at the luminescent veil of volcanic ash shimmering on Cuernavaca's narrow stone streets, he sighs fondly: 'Tamara darling, you never know when to stop.'"



October 24, 1999

Glitter Art

The life of a Deco painter who was as sybaritic as her subjects.

A Life of Deco and Decadence.
By Laura Claridge.
Illustrated. 436 pp. New York:
Clarkson Potter Publishers. $35


Jean Cocteau once said of the painter Tamara de Lempicka that she loved ''art and high society in equal measure.'' If her pursuit of society resulted in opened doors and enviable pleasures, two-timing the art world would also prove to be the bane of her existence. ''To artists she appeared to be an upper-class dilettante, and to the nervous haute bourgeoisie she seemed arrogant and depraved,'' Laura Claridge writes in ''Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence.''

A Polish-Russian aristocrat, Lempicka barely escaped the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1918, she landed in a drab little hotel room in Paris with her unemployed husband and a small child. Within a few years, marshaling her innate talent, her wit and Greta Garbo looks, she became the most talked about Art Deco painter of her time. To this day, her erotic portraits of stylish sybarites are enduring testaments to the novelty-loving materialism and decadence of the glittering 1920's.

There was nothing ordinary about Lempicka; even her name clings to the tongue like an exotic marmalade. Flamboyant (paradoxically remaining true to herself while being a slave to fashion) and imperious, she pinned down her husbands like butterflies in a case, gave lavish parties for hundreds and indulged in every vice that came her way.


In the Paris salon of the poet Natalie Barney, she sniffed cocaine and drank sloe gin fizzes laced with hashish among the likes of Andre Gide. On the banks of the Seine, she picked up sailors and female prostitutes. After her nocturnal debauches, she painted until dawn. Her life style (and her ''affair'' with the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio) sent her first husband, Tadeusz Lempicki, packing into the arms of a plump heiress.

Lempicka's second marriage was to the Hungarian Jewish Baron Raoul Kuffner, which necessitated a second flight, this time from Hitler's Europe to the United States. In New York and Hollywood (where she was known as ''the Baroness with a paintbrush'') she saw her career rise and plummet -- only to have her work rediscovered in the 1970's and 80's (she died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1980) and collected by celebrities like Madonna and Jack Nicholson.

It is Claridge's ambition that Lempicka, whom she calls ''one of the 20th century's most important and iconoclastic artists,'' be returned to her rightful place in the limelight. But her rush to enshrine Lempicka in the pantheon of modern art's greatest masters sometimes results in breathy pronouncements and lapses of judgment that disrupt an otherwise lucid and interesting account of Lempicka's life and art.

In uncovering Lempicka's life, Claridge, the author of ''Romantic Potency: The Paradox of Desire,'' has surmounted a serious handicap. There were no diaries and few letters and documents to consult; most previous accounts of Lempicka's life have been based on her deliberate lies and improvised anecdotes. Claridge establishes that Tamara Gurwik-Gorska was born around 1895 in Moscow -- not, as she insisted, in 1898 (or later) in Warsaw. Her mother, Malvina Dekler, came from wealthy Polish bankers; her father, Boris Gurwik-Gorski, was a successful Russian Jewish merchant. He disappeared early in Lempicka's childhood, and she fairly well erased him and her Jewish heritage from her memory. She grew up in the hierarchical, class-conscious atmosphere of the haute bourgeoisie during la belle époque. She attended finishing school, visited Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Paris, and made annual tours of Italy, where she first fell in love with the Renaissance masters that were to become an important influence on her work.

By 1910, Lempicka was spending most of her time at her wealthy aunt's opulent residence in St. Petersburg. It was there that she acquired her taste for luxury, and, at a costume ball, she set her sights on her future husband, a handsome Polish lawyer named Tadeusz Junosza-Lempicki. The couple's idyllic, spoiled existence -- traipsing from avant-garde cafe gatherings to society teas -- was cut short by the Russian Revolution. The Cheka arrested Tadeusz, and Lempicka was left to her own devices to free her husband and escape to Paris. ''Paradoxically,'' Claridge writes, Lempicka the painter ''would not have existed without the Russian Revolution. Her expulsion from a predestined life of privilege transformed her into a modern woman.''

In Paris, Lempicka, who had early on shown talent as an artist, took up painting to support her family. To a sleek Cubist style she added the disciplined finish and melancholy light of Renaissance painting. She painted beautiful if somewhat dim-looking women -- half mannequins, half animals, with blood red lips and translucent eyes staring Belliniesquely at heaven, awaiting, it seems, not a message from God but an elixir to slake their restless ennui.

By the mid-20's, Lempicka's portraits of aristocrats and prostitutes were being exhibited in the Paris salons. Her ''Autoportrait: Or, Woman in the Green Bugatti'' (1929) was so often reproduced it became a sort of advertisement for the new modern woman -- independent, stylish and sexually liberated. Lempicka's success allowed her to mingle with avant-gardists like Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali and Filippo Marinetti, but she remained disengaged from the progressive, leftist artistic climate of her time. Aloof and wild, she was fundamentally anti-intellectual. At home, too, she remained at sea. An absent wife, she used her artistic life to excuse her infidelities. A rigid perfectionist, she abused her daughter, Kizette. After her first marriage fell apart she suffered from severe bouts of depression that were to plague her for the rest of her life.

By the mid-1930's the neo-classical and decadent elements of Lempicka's painting made her suspect to both the left-wing critics and the fascists. Lempicka's place in the art world would not be resolved by her move to the United States in 1939. With her wealthy second husband's money she continued her frenetic socializing, while her representational painting quickly became an anachronism, overshadowed by Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. In the 1960's she largely gave up her career and came to resemble a demanding, eccentric socialite more than an influential painter.

Claridge argues that Lempicka has been denied her rightful place in modern art history because she was a woman whose background was politically incorrect, and suggests a re-examination of Modernism is in order. She may not be up to that task, but she has contributed a well-deserved and sympathetic account of Lempicka's life.

Glyn Vincent is writing a biography of the artist Ralph Albert Blakelock.




A casual reader of Polish painting in the 20th century may have only a limited idea of Tamara Lempicka's life and her contribution to the Deco history of the 20s and 30s, and thus this excellent biography will be a revelation. Her prominence was primarily recognized in Western Europe and America, where she spent most of her creative life. Firstly, there is her irrepressible individuality that fascinates. She was an “artiste” to the core, and it is often difficult to figure out the dividing line between reality (read: facts) and legend (read: Tamara's fantasies.) Was she born in Warsaw or in Moscow? Perhaps in 1898 but, maybe in 1896 or some other year. We know very little about her father, Boris Gurwik Gorski; her mother was Malwina Dekler, a well-to-do Pole of French descent. Her teen years were certainly exciting, as she divided her time between the French Riviera chic and the splendors of St. Petersburg salons, where she met the handsome Tadeusz Lempicki; she fell hopelessly in love and married him just before the Revolution overtook Russia. Their escape with the baby to France was a true odyssey. And here, in Paris, her career began. 

Unquestionably she had a formidable talent for painting and also amazing energy. Her erotic works are not to everybody's liking, but her portraits are stunning. Soon she was in the forefront of Deco art, which marked a world event in architecture as well as other art forms. Secondly, she showed stamina when fighting against odds facing any painter. This was evident when she escaped from France via Portugal to America in 1940 and had to start from scratch.




Amazingly, she moved to Hollywood and became star-struck. Soon Tamara was the talk of the town. A musician can earn his living by playing every night to a different audience or an actor by moving from town to town. But a painter depends entirely on admirers' who buy specific works. Fortunately for Tamara, she had some outside resources, but one suspects she would have succeeded even without them.

Post-war years brought various experiences to this exceptional woman. At one point the Deco style was considered "passé”; Tamara was getting old, and an adjustment to new realities was not easy. Her ultimate retirement to lovely Cuernavaca south of Mexico City was probably a blessing for her.

There were many aspects of Tamara. Her escapades in Paris were not particularly ennobling, to put it mildly. Her affair with the celebrated Italian poet d'Annunzio may be perhaps excused, as the old rascal obviously took advantage of her. She parted from her first husband Lempicki who went to Poland while she retained his name in her painting career. She then married a rich Hungarian baron who became a refugee in the U.S. but still with substantial means. One wishes that she had treated her devoted daughter better.

Here is an interesting footnote; eight years ago a popular book entitled Glass Mountain was published and the cover contained a photomontage of two paintings that were obviously done by Lempicka but without proper credit to the artist. This serious oversight was spotted by alert Mrs. Alina Żerańska, the Editor of our Newsletter. The resulting commotion caused sharp exchanges between various Polish organizations and American media. However, it also indirectly made the reading and viewing public aware of the painter's importance on both sides of the Atlantic as an outstanding representative of deco art, The exhibition of Tamara's paintings along with other woman artists in Washington D.C. that took place at the same time became a noted event.

George Suboczewski                      



Tamara de Lempicka es una de las pintoras con más fuerza y personalidad del siglo XX. Venerada como una diosa en la Europa de entreguerras, sus cuadros, tan sensuales y voluptuosos como su vida, quedaron arrinconados hasta mediados de los noventa.




Avasalladora, excéntrica y con un gran talento, la pintora Tamara de Lempicka ha sido una de las personalidades más seductoras del arte contemporáneo. Escandalizó a la sociedad de entre guerras con sus aventuras sexuales y con el ambiente de sus fiestas, en las que no faltaban las drogas, y en las que criados desnudos atendían a los invitados. Sus pinturas fueron clasificadas a veces de porno blando, pero sus obras de los años veinte y treinta han sido comparadas con las de dos grandes del siglo XX, Léger y Picasso. Hoy es una de las pintoras más buscadas por los coleccionistas, y su influencia en muchos artistas actuales ha sido finalmente reconocida. El hedonismo de su pintura es uno sus rasgos más atrayentes. Algunos de sus cuadros desprenden tanta sensualidad que la leyenda de que antes de pintarlos se acostaba con los modelos ha sentado cátedra.

El misterio rodea su vida. Tamara de Lempicka se dedicó a falsear su propia identidad sembrando de mentiras toda su biografía. Ocultó hasta su fecha de nacimiento, probablemente en un gesto de coquetería. Se calcula que nació entre 1894 y 1902. Unas veces afirmaba haber nacido en Polonia, otras en Rusia. Por eso, reconstruir la vida de Tamara, nombre que le dio su madre en recuerdo de la heroína de un poema ruso, ha desanimado a más de un biógrafo. Hasta que una profesora norteamericana, Laura Claridge, consiguió despejar la leyenda de la realidad y ha escrito la que puede ser su biografía definitiva.


Group de Quater nus


El resurgimiento de esta pintora se dio el 19 de marzo de 1994 gracias a la subasta de la colección de arte de Barbra Streisand cuando, en la sala Christie's de la Quinta Avenida, apareció el cuadro Adán y Eva, pintado por De Lempicka en 1931, y un grito se levantó entre el público. La sensual y luminosa pintura fue adjudicada en dos millones de dólares. Con esto, el afán de poseer un Lempicka se apoderó de Hollywood: Jack Nicholson, Madonna y Sharon Stone ya han comprado sus obras.

Tamara de Lempicka es una de las principales pintoras del siglo XX, pero también una de las más olvidadas. Su nombre no aparece en ninguna de las principales enciclopedias de arte moderno. Influenciada por los cubistas franceses y por los maestros del Ranacimiento, se inventó su estilo propio que etiquetaron como art déco. Cuando vivía en París se pasaba horas y horas en el Museo del Louvre delante de los cuadros de sus admirados Bellini y Caravaggio para intentar captar el efecto translúcido de sus pinturas, recordando el viaje que a la edad de 12 años hizo con su abuela desde su Polonia natal hasta el sur de Italia. El descubrimiento de Boticcelli fue para su mirada ingenua un fogonazo, y su influencia la marcó para el resto de su vida. Eso, y las clases de pintura que recibió en Montecarlo mientras su abuela jugaba a la ruleta en el casino.

Su vida no presagiaba una dedicación a las artes. La joven Tamara se integró en la rica sociedad de San Petersburgo, donde acudía con frecuencia a visitar a sus tíos. Fue ahí, en un baile de disfraces en 1912, donde conoció a un joven y elegante abogado llamado Tadeusz Lempicka, con el cual se casó. Pero el matrimonio sufriría los efectos de la revolución bolchevique. Una noche la policía secreta entró por sorpresa en la casa y detuvieron a Tadeusz por actividades contrarrevolucionarias. Cuenta Claridge que la impresión que sufrió Tamara ante esos policías con chaquetas de cuero negro fue tal que la persiguió de por vida. Consiguió escapar de Rusia, pero ya nada volvió a ser lo mismo. Cada vez que en su presencia se mencionaba la palabra comunismo, Tamara palidecía. A partir de entonces decidió, como Scarlet O' Hara ante las ruinas de Tara, que nunca más pasaría hambre ni privaciones.


Sonntag, 14. Juli 2002     Berlin, 13:32 Uhr


Die Versiegelung der Oberfläche

Sie verband handwerkliche Präzision mit gesellschaftlichem Glamour: Schon zu Lebzeiten war die Malerin Tamara de Lempicka der Liebling der Schickeria. Daran hat sich bis heute nichts geändert

Von Ulla Fölsing


Erotisch, kühl und an Luxus gewöhnt: So waren die Frauen, die Tamara de Lempicka malte, und so war sie selbst. Seit der ersten "Art déco"-Ausstellung 1925 galten ihre Bildnisse als Inbegriff des Lebensgefühls im neuen, technischen Zeitalter. Für ein Jahrzehnt war die Malerin der Star der Pariser Schickeria. Ihr Selbstporträt "Frau in grünem Bugatti", 1929 Titelbild einer Gesellschaftszeitschrift und danach immer wieder abgedruckt, wurde zur Hymne auf die Emanzipation, die Amazone am Lenkrad zur Ikone von Geschwindigkeit und Freiheit.

Von der akademischen Kunstgeschichte wird die skandalumwitterte Polin, die sich so lässig in Szene zu setzen verstand, bis heute kaum beachtet. Fans von Lempickas plakativer Ästhetik stört das wenig: Sammler wie Wolfgang Joop, Jack Nicholson und Madonna reißen sich um Lempickas Bilder. Sie scheinen eine gute Kapitalanlage: Im Mai hat Sotheby's New York Lempickas Gemälde "La Musicienne" von 1929 angeboten. Die stattliche Jazz-Age-Heroine in Blau war auf gut eine Million Dollar angesetzt. Sie ging schließlich für 2 649 500 Dollar weg - und hat damit ihren Preis beinahe verdreifacht. Das scheint inzwischen fast die Regel bei Bildern aus Lempickas entscheidender Pariser Zeit: 1994 verkaufte Barbara Streisand bei Christie's Lempickas Duo "Adam und Eva" von 1931 für 1,8 Millionen Dollar. Geschätzt worden war es auf 600 000 Dollar.



Kizette au balcon


Für den muskulösen, männlichen Part bei diesem paradiesischen Paar, das eher nach Pin-up denn nach Bibel aussieht, holte Tamara de Lempicka 1931 einen Verkehrspolizisten in ihr Pariser Studio. Ebenso ungeniert wie ihre Bilder inszenierte die Malerin die eigene Person und ihr Leben. Die kürzlich erschienene Biografie von Laura Claridge (S. Fischer Verlag) demaskiert Lempickas Selbstentwurf der Tochter aus reichem Haus. Danach wurde Lempicka nicht im Warschauer Großbürgertum, sondern als Kind eines vermögenden Moskauer Juden geboren. Ihre Tochter Kizette gab sie als Schwester aus. Das adelige "de" setzte sie nach ihrer Flucht vor der Oktoberrevolution nach Paris vor ihren Ehenamen.

Die exzentrische junge Frau, die stets auf großem Fuß lebte, machte in Frankreich aus ihrem Hobby einen Brotberuf: Mit 28 Jahren hatte sie mit ihren Bildern die erste Million verdient, auch durch ihre zähe Energie als Geschäftsfrau und ihren Sinn für Skandale - ihre publikumswirksamen Affären waren zahlreich. Eine hatte sie mit dem italienischen Dichter Gabriele d'Annunzio: Lempicka bezeichnete den Mussolini-Getreuen zwar als "altes Männchen in Uniform", nutzte seine Prominenz aber für ihre eigene Publicity.

Ende der zwanziger Jahre verglich der französische Kunstkritiker Arsène Alexandre Lempickas handwerkliche Präzision und die makellos glatten Oberflächen ihrer Bilder mit dem Können von Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Lempicka hatte ihren Malstil von den italienischen Gemälden der Renaissance übernommen, deren Schönheit und satte Farben sie seit frühester Jugend bewunderte. Ihre neoklassizistische, dem Zeittrend konträre, unsichtbare Pinselführung stand dabei in reizvollem Kontrast zu der modernistischen Tektonik ihrer Gestalten und den kubistischen Formen ihrer Hintergrundmalerei.

Spätere Werke sahen anders aus: Ab 1939 lebte die Künstlerin mit ihrem zweiten Mann, dem ungarischen Baron Raoul Kuffner, in den USA. Dort malte sie Religiöses, Stillleben und - wenig überzeugend - abstrakt und in Spachteltechnik. Bilder aus dieser Zeit sind deutlich billiger zu haben: Im Februar 2002 bot Sotheby's in New York Lempickas "Nue au bras coupé" von 1951 (siehe Abb.) für geschätzte 15 000 bis 20 000 Dollar an. Die dickliche Nackte ohne rechten Unterarm wurde zum Preis von 26 625 Dollar zugeschlagen. Es scheint, dass Tamara de Lempicka in der Neuen Welt als Malerin den Biss und die Orientierung verloren hatte. Tatsächlich waren die vier Jahrzehnte in den USA bis zu ihrem Tod 1980 von künstlerischem Misserfolg geprägt. Die Folge waren Depressionen, die die gealterte Femme fatale mit angestrengtem Gesellschaftsleben überspielte. Ein Star, wie einst in Paris, wurde sie nie mehr wieder.

12.07.2002    11:44

Tamara de Lempicka-Biografie


Laura Claridge studiert die lebenstüchtige Tamara de Lempicka


LAURA CLARIDGE: Tamara de Lempicka. Ein Leben für Dekor und Dekadenz. Aus dem Englischen von Irmengard Gabler. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2002. 478 Seiten, 24,90 Euro

Das Leben erzählt nicht nur die schönsten Geschichten, das Leben ist das eigentliche Meisterwerk. So etwa könnte man die verbreitete Haltung beschreiben, aus der sich die seit Jahren anhaltende Hochkonjunktur für Biografien erklärt. Es ist weniger das Leben als Spiel des Schicksals, das so fasziniert, sondern das Leben als Produkt einer buchstäblich ausgelebten Autorschaft. Nicht am Grad der Authentizität wird es gemessen, sondern an der Cleverness und Inspiriertheit, mit der es konstruiert wurde. Nicht die Pflicht mühsamer Selbstfindung ist von Interesse, sondern die Kür spielerischer Selbsterfindung.

Die polnischstämmige Malerin Tamara de Lempicka, bekannt durch einige wenige ikonische Bilder, die immer wieder auf Buchcovern, in Postershops und in Madonna-Videoclips auftauchen – seltener im Museum – beherrschte diese Kunst lange bevor sie zum Klischee der Postmoderne wurde. Ihr Künstlerleben war eines des Wollens, nicht des Müssens.

Die amerikanische Kunsthistorikerin Laura Claridge hat sich jetzt mit Akribie und ohne ironischer Distanz durch das Geflecht von Tatsachen, Fabrikationen, Legenden und Klatsch gearbeitet. Nicht Enthüllung ist ihre Methode, sondern ein close reading von Fakten und Fiktionen, die etwa gleichen Anteil am Phänomen „Tamara“ haben.

Dabei hatte Tamara de Lempicka Ausschmückung eigentlich nicht nötig. Geboren wahrscheinlich 1895 in Moskau – nicht 1898 in Warschau, wie sie behauptete –, durchlebte sie sämtliche Höhen und Tiefen des 20. Jahrhunderts. Ihre Kindheit verbrachte sie im aristokratischen Milieu des Warschau der belle époque. Man lebte wie bei Proust; monatelange Bildungsreisen nach Italien, das Mädchenpensionat in Lausanne, die „Wintersaison“ in St. Petersburg und Abstecher nach Cannes waren selbstverständlich – bis jäh das Ende der goldenen Jugend hereinbrach. Blind für die Radikalität der zukünftigen Revolutionäre flirtete die erzmonarchistische Kunststudentin noch am Vorabend der Oktoberrevolution mit der linken Avantgarde. Als die Barrikaden dann brannten, gelang es ihr nur knapp, sich und ihren Ehemann, der vermutlich für die Konterrevolutionäre arbeitete, ins sichere Paris zu bringen: das Trauma ihres Lebens. Ohne Geld, ausgestattet nur mit Dreistigkeit und Disziplin, baute die Exilantin mit Kind und verstörtem Ehemann aus dem Nichts binnen weniger Jahre eine Karriere als bald auch kommerzielle erfolgreiche Malerin auf.
Die Zwanziger Jahre wurden ihre produktivste Periode.

Bemerkenswert war nicht nur ihr einzigartiger Stil: ein skulpturaler, neoklassizistisch umgeformter Kubismus, gleichermaßen unterkühlt wie bebend vor Sexualität, den man etwas ratlos dem Art Déco zuschlug. Bemerkenswert war nicht nur die Gleichzeitigkeit ihrer Pariser Existenzen: die der Gesellschaftslady, der ehrgeizigen Jungkünstlerin und der dekadenten Femme fatale, die mit Frauen und Seeleuten ins Bett ging, nur um am nächsten Morgen ihrer Tochter das Frühstück zu bereiten. Bemerkenswert war vor allem ihr Talent zur Selbstvermarktung. Um Porträtkunden zu finden, schmiss sie sich an Reiche und Prominente wie Cocteau oder Coco Chanel. Um im Kunstbetrieb den Anschluss nicht zu verlieren, verbrachte sie die Nächte in Cafés und auf Parties, wo sie ein interessantes Gesicht machte, wenn Futuristen und Surrealisten wieder ihre Utopien wälzten.

Dieser Praxis blieb Tamara de Lempicka treu, als sie sich nach der Flucht vor den Deutschen mit ihrem zweiten Ehemann in Hollywood niederließ: ihr dritter Neuanfang. Zielstrebig steuerte sie die Künstlerkreise an, lud Hunderte einflussreicher Leute zu opulenten Parties, verteilte Starporträts von sich an die Presse und lancierte Gerüchte, wie das, sie sei eine enge Freundin Greta Garbos. Statt über ihre Bilder zu sprechen, gab sie in den Zeitungen Beauty-Tips („Mollige Frauen sollten breitkrempige Hüte meiden“). Zur Eröffnung einer Ausstellung in New York, von der sie sich wieder einmal den Durchbruch erhoffte, verbreitete sie über AP eine völlig ernst gemeinte „Lektion in der Kunst des Flirtens“. Nicht einmal Hollywood, geschweige denn New York, wohin sie bald zog, kamen da noch mit.

Dass sie in Amerika nie richtig Fuß fasste, lag aber vor allem an der stilistischen Kehrtwende, die sie Mitte der Dreißiger vollzog. Statt dem kühlen Stil ihrer früheren Werke treu zu bleiben, die im New York des Art Déco und der Streamline-Moderne gut ankamen, statt sich dem Surrealismus anzuschließen, der dort mit Verspätung eintraf, verlegte sie sich auf einen manierierten Naturalismus. Sie malte sentimentale Genrestücke von verhärmten Nonnen und verweinten Flüchtlingsmüttern, die sich stark an den niederländischen Meistern anlehnten. Als schließlich mit dem Abstrakten Expressionismus die Leinwand Schauplatz und der Pinselstrich Protagonist der Malerei wurden, stand sie mit diesen – technisch wie immer perfekt ausgeführten – Gemälden vollends als Gestrige da. Gerade sie, die ihre Karriere als Frage der Strategie und des Gespürs für Trends verstand, hatte die Konjunktur verpasst. Während sie die Moderne lebte wie kaum eine andere, stolperte sie über ihre tief sitzende Romantik und ein Kunstideal aus dem Quattrocento. 1980 starb sie, exzentrischer denn je und immer noch schwerreich, in Mexiko. Freunde streuten ihre Asche mit dem Hubschrauber über den Krater des Popocatepetl. Sieben Jahre später hatte „Tamara“ am Broadway Premiere. JÖRG HÄNTZSCHEL


The good old naughty days

In life Tamara de Lempicka was a Left Bank bisexual with an appetite for bohemian living. Her work, though, portrays the dubious glamour and discipline of fascism

Fiona MacCarthy
Saturday May 15, 2004
The Guardian

If there is a single image that encapsulates art deco, it is Tamara de Lempicka's self-portrait Tamara in the Green Bugatti. It was commissioned for the cover of the German magazine Die Dame, which defined her as "a symbol of women's liberation". The tight, post-cubist composition of the painting; the muted, sophisticated colour; the sense of speed and glamour; her blonde curl edging out of the head-hugging Hermès helmet; her long leather driving gauntlets; her lubricious red lips. Clearly this is a woman who means business - even to the extent of mowing down a few pedestrians.

Her time was the 1920s: a period of transition, an era in which functionalism merged with fantasy and formal social structures lurched into the frenetic. In essence, De Lempicka was a classicist, having admired Renaissance painting since her adolescent travels in Italy. But she astutely combined traditional portraiture with advertising techniques, photographic lighting, vistas of the tower architecture of great cities.

Her milieu was the glittery and scintillating Paris of the years between the wars, a place of high style and lascivious behaviour. With a callous authenticity, De Lempicka depicted the shifting morals of a Paris where nothing was precisely what it seemed. She lived and worked on the bisexual fringes of a society where there were no rules beyond the demands of style and entertainment. She was the great go-getter, a believer in exploiting one's resources to the ultimate. Her iconic green Bugatti wasn't green in reality but yellow. Nor was it even a Bugatti but a Renault. "There are no miracles," she stated with her icy realism. "There is only what you make."

Who was she? De Lempicka shuffled the facts of her biography much as she meddled with her birth date. Tamara Gurnick-Gorzka was born in Moscow - or could it have been Warsaw? - in 1898 or so, to a wealthy Polish mother and a cosmopolitan Russian father. Her background of social confidence and ease was to prove an advantage to a portraitist: she confronted her sitters on equal terms. In St Petersberg, she met Tadeusz Lempicki, a tall, saturnine attorney of noble family and, at the age of 14, announced her love for him. They were married just before the Russian revolution. Lempicki was arrested by the Bolsheviks but his wife secured his release.

Like other exiled White Russians, they arrived in Paris with no money, having abandoned their possessions. They now had a child, Kizette. Tadeusz Lempicki remained unemployed and moody. Tamara's portrait of her husband shows the queasy self-importance of the glamour boy displaced. These were years of deprivation, in which Tamara herself became determined to succeed as a professional artist. "My goal," she later wrote, "was never to copy, to create a new style, bright, luminous colours and to scent out elegance in my models." She became a prime interpreter of modernity.

De Lempicka's painting is a thing of gloss and gesture. In her early days in Paris, she enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and absorbed the work of the old masters, especially admiring Bronzino. In some ways, De Lempicka is a mannerist reborn. She went on to study in the studio of the symbolist Maurice Denis, a highly decorative painter who instilled the sense of discipline and structure in her work.

Her most influential mentor was the painter and critic André Lhote, perpetrator of a less strident, gentler-coloured form of cubism, a style easily acceptable to the bourgeoisie. In her early Paris paintings, De Lempicka employed this "synthetic cubist" method, an accumulation of small geometric planes used to startlingly voluptuous effect in images of women reclining, women bathing, women embracing, laconically stroking one another's thighs. The blatant display of the naked female body was a feature of art deco - this was, after all, the era of Josephine Baker shaking her banana skins. De Lempicka's pair of pointing-breasted giantesses, The Friends, disport themselves in front of a futuristic stage set of skyscrapers, a 1920s fantasy of big city sex.

But her images of female nudity also recalled the French neo-classical tradition. Her group painting Women Bathing is the Left Bank lesbian version of Ingres's luscious harem composition The Turkish Bath. The critics' divination of "perverse Ingrism" in De Lempicka's paintings did her burgeoning popularity no harm. In real life, she acted up to it, displaying her own tall, slender, curvy body outstretched on a divan, wearing a titillating white satin robe with marabou feather adornments. Tamara played her own art deco goddess of desire.

She was a workaholic, permitting interruptions in her nine-hour painting sessions only for such necessities as champagne, a massage and a bath. She sold herself shrewdly and by 1923 was beginning to exhibit in small galleries in Paris. The next year, her work was shown at the Salon des Femmes Artistes Modernes in Paris, and in 1925 she had her first solo exhibition in Milan.

Her social life advanced in parallel, displaying the full force of Tamara's "killer instinct" (her daughter's description). There was something predatory in the way she acquired so many lovers of both sexes, many of whom were also her models and her patrons. The model for her painting Beautiful Rafaela was picked up in the street and seduced with aplomb. The portrait throbs with an intense erotic energy. The liaison continued for a year.

Tamara gave up on Tadeusz and, brandishing diamond bracelets from wrist to shoulder, joined the European avant-garde celebrities: Marinetti, Jean Cocteau, Gabriel d'Annunzio. She visited d'Annunzio at his notorious villa Il Vittoriale in Gardone where, unusually, she resisted his advances and, equally unusually, failed to paint his portrait - a singular loss to the De Lempicka oeuvre. She was a spectacular attender of Natalie Barney's afternoons "for women only" and claimed to have snorted cocaine with André Gide.

Thanks to her contacts in the world of the Paris couturiers, De Lempicka always looked fabulous. Photographed in the right light, she could be Greta Garbo's sister. She made her entrance at smart parties in magnificent garments donated by Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.

In the late 1920s, De Lempicka acquired her most important patrons, Doctor Pierre Boucard and his wife. Boucard was a medical scientist, inventor of Lacteol, a cure for indigestion. He had become an avid modernist and already owned several De Lempicka nudes, including her most flamboyant lesbian painting, Myrto, Two Women on a Couch. He now offered her a two-year contract to paint portraits of himself, his wife and daughter, also asking for an option on any other paintings she produced.

This sudden financial stability allowed her to buy a three-storey house and studio on Rue Mechain on the Left Bank. She commissioned its refurbishment by Robert Mallet-Stevens, the most brilliant French modernist designer of the time. With its svelte grey interior, chrome fittings and American cocktail bar it gave De Lempicka the setting of ultimate urban smartness to which she had long aspired.

A contemporary architectural photograph shows the new studio in all its pristine glory. There in the centre on its easel is the portrait of Madame Boucard, completed in 1931, a sophisticated and accomplished painting that tells us as much about De Lempicka as it does about the sitter. De Lempicka is the connoisseur of textiles, jewels, hairstyles, the cut of the garment, the swathe of the mink stole: no other painter of the period gives us so precise a reading of its material values. Madame Boucard is posed like a Renaissance courtesan, her right nipple erect beneath the oyster satin bodice. She's a figure of power, with something of the brutal allure of Wallis Simpson. What she tells us is that every sex act has its price.

Size mattered in the Europe of that time. De Lempicka's male portraits show gigantic caddishness. Spiv-shouldered Doctor Boucard, with his test tube and his microscope, looks more the slick sharp man about town than man of healing. Count Fürstenberg Herdringen is a glass-eyed monster in a Frenchman's navy beret. Most frightening of all is the colossal portrait of the Grand Duke Gabriel Constantinovich, with his gold-braided uniform and empty, sneering face.

De Lempicka was an artist of the Fascist superworld: her portraits were allied to the "call to order" movement, the return to monumental realism in European art. Her art exudes the dark and dubious glamour of authoritarian discipline. When she paints the Duchesse de la Salle, the Duchess is in jackboots, one hand thrust in her pocket in an attitude of menace. It is a tremendous portrait, painted with the sheer theatrical enjoyment, the unerring sense of decor, of De Lempicka's best work.

In 1933 she remarried. Baron Raoul Kuffner was the owner of vast estates donated to his family of stockbreeders and brewers by Emperor Franz-Josef for supplying the Hapsburg court. De Lempicka had already portrayed her future husband as a dandy desperado, gazing out inscrutably from behind hooded lids. She had also painted - and in doing so disposed of - his previous mistress, the Andalusian dancer Nana de Herrera, selecting her as model for the most overtly decadent of the "damned women" in the notorious Group of Four Nudes .

De Lempicka was never a consistent painter. As with many ruthless people, her swagger could give way to a strain of awful mawkishness: cubism and kitsch. Once she became Baroness Kuffner, Tamara lost direction. The urge for fame, and indeed subsistence, left her. The age of art deco, in which she thrived, was over. Her sentimental studies of old men with guitars and lachrymose mother superiors are a dreadful anti-climax after the bitchy candour of her portrait of lesbian nightclub owner Suzy Solidor.

The political terrors of Europe in the 1930s were impinging: she and the baron, on holiday in Austria, were appalled to have their breakfast on the hotel verandah interrupted by a singing parade of Hitler Youth. In 1939, urged by Tamara, who was partly Jewish, Kuffner sold his estates in Hungary and they moved to the US. In New York, she tried abstract expressionism unsuccessfully, and was reduced to the role of a chic curiosity, "the painting baroness".

De Lempicka died in 1980 in Mexico, having directed that her ashes be scattered over the crater of volcanic Mount Popocatepetl. The woman who in her lifetime was described as "a little hot potato" came to a suitably inflammatory end. Her expensively dressed rogues gallery of portraits, though hardly great art, add up to a unique and alarming social document, recording the seductive surface textures of a European society en route to self-destruct.

Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco Icon is at the Royal Academy, London W1, until August 30. Details: 0870 848 8484.





Tamara de Lempicka
A Life of Deco and Decadence




Mythical Beginnings

  By early afternoon on 19 March 1994, Christie's main auction room at 502 Park Avenue in New York City was filled to capacity. Emanating scents from the thirties—Chanel No. 5, Joy, and the newly revived Arpège—several expensive-looking women, craning their necks to study the forlorn latecomers standing in the back, seemed more interested in the company they were keeping than in the objets d'art. In the middle of the crowd, three drag queens, vamping the roaring twenties in their gold lamé gowns and feather boas, examined the lavish catalog. Their exasperated comments suggested that the presale estimates were higher than they had anticipated. For days the wealthy potential buyers (carefully targeted by Christie's thorough preregistration) had been attending publicity events—dinners and video shows—that emphasized the glamorous, high-profile nature of this sale. Christopher Burge, Christie's crisp British president, took his place at the front of the suddenly silent room, and the dais began to rotate as one exquisite object after another sold quickly, most of them for predictable prices. Gustav Stickley furniture, Tiffany lamps, Jacques Lipchitz paintings: the spotlight lent each item the Hollywood glow of the collection's owner, Barbra Streisand. As the digital board at the front of the room lit up with Japanese, French, and German currencies competing against the dollar, the wood-paneled room seemed to hum with excitement.  


Suddenly a collective gasp escaped the audience. Tamara de Lempicka's Adam and Eve, painted at the end of 1931, shimmered at the front of the room, its impossibly luminous nudes confounding even those who believed themselves inured to the old-fashioned finish that pre-Modernist artists had valued so highly. Dealer Michel Witmer nodded a bit smugly; he had already provoked many arguments by contending that this painting would prove the crowning jewel of the show. In the face of his colleagues' disbelief, Witmer, adamantly maintaining that Adam and Eve was not painted on canvas, insisted that the preternatural glow of the flesh tones could only result from oil on wood. After all, he had said, "during the 1920s, Lempicka spent hours at the Louvre on a weekly basis studying what she considered the masterpieces of light and color. Clearly she was influenced by the sixteenth-century Dutch paintings that achieved a translucence in their figures partly due to painting on panels."

"What am I offered for this extraordinary panel painting by Art Deco's most famous portraitist, Tamara de Lempicka?" Mr. Burge quietly but imperiously began. As the numbers climbed rapidly from the already extravagant presale estimate of $600,000, the room filled with chatter. Promoting the painting, the auctioneer alluded to the peripatetic life that had inspired the artist's dramatic works: Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Paris, Milan, and Cuernavaca. As if on cue, a spate of international phone bids raised the price even further. When the offer reached $1 million, the room grew tense. Numbers were flying on the digital printout, and everyone watched Michel Witmer to see how far his client would go. A woman dealing by phone for her Saudi Arabian collector offered $1.25 million; turning toward Witmer, Christopher Burge intoned, "One point five?" The dealer nodded. Back to the phone: the anonymous caller raised her bid to $1.8 million. After an almost imperceptible sign from his client, Witmer shook his head, refusing the offer to exceed $1.8 million. "Going once," the audience heard, "going twice . . . sold for one point eight million dollars." With commissions added, the final sale was $1.98 million.

On that mild March afternoon when the gavel sounded in Christie's main salon, one of the twentieth century's most important and iconoclastic artists was returned to the limelight after a long hiatus. Years of comparative obscurity would yield to public scrutiny as the painter's reputation began its most significant reevaluation in over fifty years. Tamara would have loved and hated the whole affair. Money defined artistic worth in her world: she had refused to sell paintings when the offers insulted her pride. Both the sale price and the international flavor of the bidding would have pleased the painter who lived her life as a citizen of the world. But had she been accosted by the reporters on her exit from the room (as the underbidder for the painting was), she would have raged at their implication that she was being rediscovered, and at their suggestion that her talent increased in proportion to her Hollywood connection. Celebrity was something she appreciated. She had, in the late 1930s, enjoyed socializing with the members of the movie industry, but she had never thought them great judges of art. During the two years she lived in Los Angeles she was known as the Baroness with a Paintbrush, an epithet that motivated her to move to New York in the hope of reestablishing her reputation as a serious artist.

A mere four months after the auction at Christie's, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held a Lempicka retrospective. Art historian Robert Rosenblum enthusiastically observed that Tamara was "a liberated woman and she was frankly erotic . . . a thinking woman's Léger." But in a review entitled "The Price Will Go Up, Tamara," Newsweek's art critic, Peter Plagens, referred to the painter as "practically forgotten," producing "almost soft porn," with only "eighty-four paintings known to exist." (Minimal research would have revealed the current count of almost five hundred.) Tamara, he pronounced, was "the end product, not the producer of art that influences other artists."