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American singer-songwriter Madonna is a serious collector of her work, as is Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, Donna Karan and Wolfgang Joup. So why is Tamara de Lempicka disregarded by art history apparatchiks?

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Lempicka

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IF THERE IS the one thing, one essential, omnipresent in the life and career of Tamara de Lempicka, it is the question mark. Was she a great artist? This might be queried first and foremost, but as her whole life was a performance wrapped up in a conundrum, the answer to this, as with all else, is far from simple.Tamara de Lempicka might not have been a great artist but she undoubtedly produced a handful of truly great paintings, images that can hold their own against any contemporary works of the Neue Sachlichkeit or in Jazz Age Paris. It might not be too outrageous even to compare her best portraits with those of Modigliani, for they have in common a sensuousness – and a longing tinged with a trace element of alienation, so often found in the physically dispossessed.

Tamara de Lempicka arrived on earth as Maria Gorska, born in Warsaw in 1898. Her family were reasonably well to do (‘wealthy’ in the biographies) sourced most likely from her mother, the socialite Malvina Declar. It was Declar that imbued the young Maria with a sense of self-importance that bordered on arrogance – a confidence that never deserted her throughout a long and erratic life. After a brief spell in a Swiss boarding school and a tour of Europe with her grandmother, she met and subsequently married Tadeusz Lempicki in St. Petersburg in the year 1916. It might be remembered that Warsaw was then a part of the Russian Empire, so this was not quite as adventurous as it might first appear. However, it is the date that is of more significance.The slaughter on the Western Front carried on unabated and a devastated Russia was on the verge of revolution. When, in 1917, the inevitable happened, Tadeusz, a sometime lawyer, was arrested by the Bolsheviks and apparently only the intervention of his 19 year old wife saved the day. This is the first occasion where biographers hint that Maria’s striking looks, sensuality and sexual allure, were put to good use. If so, it taught her a lesson she never forgot.

Even Lempicka’s detractors admitted she was a striking woman. Not beautiful in the normal sense, but the Slavic features with their ancestral relationship to the Orient, gave her an individuality that – when mixed with an extraordinary personality – never failed to impress. Even Francoise Gilot, destined to be Picasso’s mistress at the tender age of 22, grudgingly applauded the older woman’s vivacity and magnetism.The comfortable world Maria Gorska had known all her life had been swept away by war and revolution. Now the Lempickis fled to Paris, itself sinking beneath a tidal wave of defunct titles and ex-Royals, and a beacon for outcasts from all over Europe. Within the support structure of the Polish émigré community, Maria – now reborn as Tamara – began to flourish, and to study art again with all her customary focus (she had previously attended classes in St. Petersburg). Her natural talent was acknowledged and encouraged by both Maurice Denis and Andre Lhote and Tamara developed a signature style with alacrity. By 1925, she had enjoyed a major success in Milan and was much in demand for her singular portraits.

Tamara appears to have had the sort of character that blossomed with adversity. Here she is, pushing her career forward at breakneck speed whilst around her the world is in meltdown. An influenza epidemic devastates a Europe weakened by four years of war; Germany disintegrates into political turmoil; Imperial Russia and the Habsburg Empire have been turned to chaos. It is during this tumultuous period that she creates her finest work.

Critics have occasionally used the fact that many of her ‘sitters’ were titled and privileged characters from the pre-War world as a means to devalue her art. This is clearly illogical. As a part of the sprawling community of exiles desperately trying to re-establish their social positions in Paris, what could be more logical than to commission a fellow émigré? And one with such a burgeoning reputation!Between 1923 and 1933, Tamara reached the zenith in both her professional and private life. In libertine Parisian society, Tamara could indulge her lesbian tendencies to the full. Some writers were to take a salacious pleasure in recording her imperious – almost sadistic – control over girlfriends obsessed with the city’s most fashionable painter of nudes. And although Tamara produces some epic portraits of the men in her circle during this period, for example the portraits of André Gide, c.1925 and Dr Boucard, 1928, it is the female subjects that demonstrate her insight and understanding of the psychology of woman – and her ability to disclose this by way of expression, gesture and pose.   Her circle of artists and writers at this time included Vita Sackville-West and Colette, plus the bohemian coterie of Montparnasse with KiKi as its reigning queen. She rubbed shoulders with those destined to become the great names of art history in the famous cafes and clubs of Jazz Age Paris. But throughout, Tamara never lost control over her carefully fashioned image and status. Photographs of the time depict her at the easel, but comically attired in evening gown, or posing Vogue-like in all manner of outfits – her trademark hat ever present. She correctly detected her ungainly nose spoilt the overall symmetry of her face and went to great lengths to disguise this problem. Her torrid affair with Suzy Solidor, cabaret singer at the Boite de Nuit, produced one of her major paintings and also a divorce – Tadeusz Lempicki abandoned her in 1927 and an acrimonious divorce followed a year later. 

With their daughter Kizette left in the care of Tamara’s increasingly irate mother, the social butterfly continued her life of indulgence and promiscuous sex. Her group of bi-sexual women thought it fun to have adoring ‘slaves’ of both sexes in attendance and Tamara shrewdly took a lover in the person of Baron Raoul Kuffner – whose mistress she had painted sometime earlier – and who himself had collected a decent number of her pictures. Tamara’s portrait of Kuffner is another of her major works. Once again, where there was some extreme emotional engagement with a man, she was able to imbue the work with the spiritual and psychological insight she found more accessible with her female subjects. With Gide it could have been awe and admiration, with Tadeusz it was bitterness and resentment, and with Kuffner it might have been love. Whatever the psychic dialogue, these portraits speak for themselves.

In 1934, Tamara was struck down with acute depression. From the art critic’s point of view, her work never recovered. Kuffner had removed her from bohemian Paris and she now circled around in what was left of ‘old world’ society. As Europe tumbled towards another war, the Kuffners left for America and Hollywood (Tamara had repaid the Baron’s devotion by astutely persuading him to sell all his East European assets and deposit the cash in Switzerland – she never needed a second lesson in impending political strife and ruinous revolution).

The drama continued on to the end of Tamara’s life, her resurgence – after a long period in the critical wilderness – thanks to art dealer Alain Blondel. In a recession-strapped May 2009, Sotheby’s New York sale of Impressionist and Modern Art was the worst since November 2001 (the World Trade Center attack). The top two lots, by Picasso and Alberto Giacometti, failed to sell. But Tamara de Lempicka was a headline performer with four paintings from the collection of German fashion designer Wolfgang Joup made a total of $13.8 million, with three ranking in the top 10 prices for the evening. Painted in the 1920s and 1930s Art Deco era, a sultry 1932 portrait of English cabaret singer Marjorie Ferry, wrapped in white toga-like drape, fetched $4.9 million, an auction record for the artist. In the art world of today, success is measured in purely monetary terms. De Lempicka’s bankability and status amongst major collectors is forcing a serious reassessment and those who previously regarded her work with disdain are conveniently revising their opinion.

Her work in the USA, and in the Paris studio she maintained, never reprised the classics of that crucial decade between the wars. Her portraits and still lifes (we won’t mention the quasi-religious nonsense she painted post-illness) from the late 1940s onwards bordered on kitsch and appear twee even in reproduction. But the body of work created within that brief period of brilliance – to label it merely Art Deco does it a great injustice – has the élan and the dynamic of a modernism that, with perhaps the exception of the Minimalist 1970s, has never appeared dated.

FURTHER READING: Lempicka. The Artist, The Woman, The Legend. Emmanuel Breon. Flammarion £24.95.

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