by Roderick Conway Morris

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Art Deco star shined brightly and briefly

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 10 November 2006
A & M Blondel Collection
The artist with a portrait of her husband
Tadeusz Lempicki around 1928.



In 1911 the St. Petersburg banker Maurice Stifter held a fancy dress ball. His young niece by marriage, Tamara, came as a Polish peasant, with a goose on a lead. She was probably not more than 13 or 14, but managed to attract the attention of one of the city's most eligible bachelors, Tadeusz Lempicki, a handsome, titled Polish lawyer in his early twenties. Five years later he married her.

By the time she launched herself as an artist at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1922, Tamara's married name had gained the aristocratic-sounding French particle 'de,' and she was signing her works Lempicka, or sometimes in the masculine form Lempicki, which left the first critic ever to mention her in print under the impression that she was a man.

'Italy gave me a lot,' Lempicka told a Polish journalist in 1932. And despite her tireless networking in Paris, where she built up excellent contacts in the artistic and literary worlds, it was Italy that provided her with the opportunity for her first one-woman exhibition, in Milan in November 1925. The Palazzo Reale is now the venue for an enlightening, entertaining, well-researched reassessment of her life and works, curated by Gioia Mori (until Jan. 14).

Rewriting of personal history, self-aggrandisement, sexual ambiguity - she was a dedicated, indeed voracious bisexual - economy with the truth, the birthdate she claimed would have made her younger than her younger sister, were to characterize her long life. Her pyrotechnic career as a painter burned brightly for scarcely more than a dozen years.

But for the Bolshevik revolution, Lempicka would probably never have become a professional artist. She fled Russia in 1918, and she, Kizette (her daughter born shortly after her marriage) and Tadeusz were reunited in Paris later that year. The family, like many other refugees, found lodgings in a cheap hotel. Initially a low-level existence was sustained by the sale of her jewelry, but this was decidedly not the kind of longer-term lifestyle that Lempicka had in mind.

At the prompting of her sister, by then also in Paris, Lempicka, who had shown natural artistic talents since childhood, set about transforming herself into a portraitist. The principal bankable asset she had was her fortuitously acquired knowledge of Italian art, ancient, Renaissance and modern. She drew on some aspects of other modern movements, notably Cubism and Picasso's monumental figures of the early '20s. She had been taken on regular visits to the peninsula since at least 1907, expanding her familiarity with its art in the great collections of St. Petersburg, London and Paris.

The contemporary Italian scene Lempicka found herself being measured against at her first solo show in Milan was undergoing its own version of what Cocteau had styled the 'return to order,' the going back to classical forms after what had come to be seen as the excesses of certain kinds of modernism.

But Lempicka's borrowings from the past were probably more eclectic than those of any of her Italian colleagues as, magpie-like, she helped herself to elements from sources ranging from ancient statuary and the sculpture of Michelangelo and Giambologna to the paintings of Antonella da Messina, Botticelli, Correggio, Pontormo and Bronzino. One local critic dismissed her colorful palette and bold sculptural figures as being more suitable for a fashion magazine or the décor of an avant- garde nightclub than for serious artistic consideration, but at least one respected commentator judged her work to be a significant contribution to the modern neoclassical movement.

Lempicka also later acknowledged two teachers in Paris, Maurice Denis and André Lhote. Denis had once declared: 'A picture - before being a horse, a nude or an anecdotal subject - is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order.' Although she soon forged a style of her own, Lempicka's work could in many respects be seen as a prime example of this somewhat reductive, utilitarian doctrine.

Unencumbered by any firm convictions or philosophical baggage, Lempicka set out unashamedly to glamorize her sitters, and generally succeeded. An exception was when the recently ennobled Baron Kuffner asked her to paint his mistress, the Spanish dancer Nana de Herrera. The artist produced a highly unflattering portrait. This appears to have been part of Lempicka's strategy to replace Herrera as the Baron's lover, which she did not long afterwards, eventually becoming his wife.

Reveling in a world of luxury and silky surfaces, haute couture and blatant sexuality, Lempicka was uninterested in plumbing psychological depths. Routinely more concerned with trying to get her sitters between the sheets, she manifested little inclination to attempt to capture their inner characters on canvas.

By the age of 28 (or thereabouts, given that her real birthdate is unknown), she had made her first million francs. She had a new studio planned by Robert Mallet- Stevens, the leading Art Deco architect and designer of interiors and film sets. In 1932 Pathé News screened a report of her at work in this epitome of the most up-to-date of artist's studios, with Lempicka as the star performer, shown in the act of painting the semi-nude Suzy Solidor, a celebrated cabaret singer and one of the artist's lovers. (This amusing short film is included, along with other evocative documents, in the Milan show.)

Working from 8 in the morning until 5, Lempicka typically did three sessions with different sitters each day, followed, she said, by 'Champagne, a bath, a massage.' Her output was prodigious, but so was her consumption of alcohol, cocaine and cigarettes. Her rackety, late- night, feverish lifestyle was in due course to take its toll.

Also in 1932, she received official recognition when the French state bought one of her paintings. But in the same year her first husband Tadeusz, from whom she had been divorced in 1928, married another woman. She had some form of nervous breakdown, and was plagued by depression for the rest of her life.

Thereafter, she spent long periods prevented by illness from painting. Her later work became religiose and mawkishly sentimental. The devil-may-care divas with their hooded, smoky, sideways glances, scarlet lips, manicured hands and body-caressing cocktail dresses were replaced by swooning saints and a rheumy-eyed Mother Superior, weeping 'glycerine tears,' as an American critic rudely but pertinently put it.

Indeed, it is difficult to believe that the painter of the later pictures, which resemble tasteless commercial greetings cards, could possibly have been by the same artist who so ardently embodied the heyday of the Art Deco era, and played a major role in creating the image of it we still have today.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024