”I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.”
Madonna is a collector of her work and has lent paintings to events and museums, and inspired her music videos for Open Your Heart (1987), Express Yourself (1989), and Vogue (1990). She also used paintings by de Lempicka on the sets of her Who’s That Girl (1987-88) and Blond Ambition (1990) world tours. Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand are also collectors.
Tamara de Lempicka’s 1929 self-portrait, Tamara In The Green Bugatti, is an image that epitomizes the Art Deco movement. It was commissioned for the cover of the German magazine Die Dame, which defined her as “a symbol of women’s liberation”. The tight, cubist inspired composition; the muted, sophisticated color; the sense of speed; a blonde curl peeking out of her Hermès helmet; her long leather driving gloves; her luscious red lips; this is a woman who would think little of mowing down a few pedestrians.
The 1920s were a period of tremendous transition, an era where functionalism met fantasy and social structures frenetically forced change. In many ways, De Lempicka was a classicist. She was an admirer of the Renaissance paintings she saw in travels in Italy as a youth. She combined traditional portraiture with new advertising techniques, photographic lighting, and scenes of the architecture of the great cities.
Her milieu was the scintillating Paris of the years between the two world wars, city of great style and lascivious lifestyles. De Lempicka depicted the shifting morals at a time when nothing was exactly as it seemed. She lived and worked on the fringes of a society where there were no rules beyond style and entertainment. She thought nothing of exploiting one’s resources to the ultimate. Her iconic green Bugatti wasn’t actually green; but yellow, and not even a Bugatti but a Renault. De Lempicka:
“There are no miracles. There is only what you make.”
She shuffled the facts of her biography, including her date of birth. She was born Tamara Gurnick-Gorzka in Moscow (or maybe Warsaw) to a wealthy Polish mother and a cosmopolitan Russian father. In St. Petersberg, she met Tadeusz Lempicki, a tall, cheerless lawyer from an aristocratic family and announced her love for him when she was 14 years old. They were married just before the Russian Revolution. De Lempicka was arrested by the Bolsheviks but she was able to secure his release.
Like many exiled Russians, the couple arrived in Paris with no money, having left behind their possessions. Her husband was unemployed and moody. These were years of loss and destitution, but De Lempicka was determined to succeed as a professional painter. She later wrote:
“My goal was never to copy, to create a new style, bright, luminous colors and to scent out elegance in my models.”
She became an excellent exponent of modernity. De Lempicka’s paintings are a wonder 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. She studied in the studio of Maurice Denis (1870 – 1943) who was an important figure in the transitional period between Impressionism and Modern Art, and a highly decorative painter who instilled the sense of discipline and design in her work.
Her most influential teacher was gay painter and writer André Lhote (1885 –1962), a creator of a more muted form of Cubism, a style easily approachable for the bourgeoisie. In her early Paris paintings, De Lempicka employed this method, an assemblage of small geometric planes used to startlingly effect in images of women reclining, bathing, embracing, and sweetly stroking one another’s thighs. This blatant display of naked female bodies was a feature of Art Deco. Remember, this is the same era as a nearly nude Josephine Baker shook her banana peels.
The critics’ claims of “perversion” in De Lempicka’s paintings did her new popularity no harm. In real life, she displayed her own tall, slender body stretched out on a divan, wearing a titillating white satin robe with marabou feather. She played her own Art Deco goddess of desire.
She was a workaholic, allowing interruptions in her nine-hour painting sessions only for champagne, a massage and a bath. She sold herself shrewdly and by 1923 was beginning to show her work in small galleries in Paris. In 1924, her work was shown at the Salon des Femmes Artistes Modernes in Paris, and in 1925 she had her first solo exhibition in Milan.
There was something rather predatory in the way she stacked up so many lovers of both sexes, many of whom were also her models and patrons. The model for her intensely erotic painting Beautiful Rafaela (1927) was picked up off the street. Their affair continued for a year.
De Lempicka was tossed aside, she kept his name and, dripping in diamonds, joined the European avant-garde celebrities such as Jean Cocteau, poet Gabriel d’Annunzio, and art critic Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. She visited d’Annunzio at his notorious Villa Il Vittoriale on Lake Garda, where, unusually, she resisted his advances. She was a member of Natalie Barney‘s afternoons “for women only” and snorted cocaine with gay writer André Gide.
Thanks to her contacts in the world of the Paris couturiers, De Lempicka always looked fabulous. She was stunning and she made her entrance at smart soirees in gorgeous garments given as gifts by Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.
In the late 1920s, De Lempicka met her most crucial patrons, Pierre Boucard and his wife. Boucard was a medical scientist who developed Lacteol, a cure for indigestion. He was an avid modernist and already owned several De Lempicka nudes, including the flamboyant lesbian painting, Myrto, Two Women On A Couch. He offered her a two-year contract to paint portraits of himself, his wife and daughter, also asking for the option on any other paintings she produced.
A Nazi soldier billeted in the Boucard home fell under the spell of Myrto, Two Women On A Couch. The not-so-welcome German guest was so taken by the seductive scene that he couldn’t bear to part with it. As the Germans retreated, so, too, did the painting. It hasn’t been seen since.
This stability allowed her to purchase a house and studio on the Left Bank. She had it remodeled by Robert Mallet-Stevens, the brightest French interior designer of the time. With its muted grey interior, chrome fixtures and American style cocktail bar, de Lempicka had the ultimate urban digs in Paris.
De Lempicka was a connoisseur of textiles, jewels, hairstyles, the cut of the garment; no other painter of the period had so precise an eye for detail. Size mattered in Paris at that time, and de Lempicka’s male portraits show prodigious rakishness.
De Lempicka was a painter of the new Fascist super-world. Her portraits were allied to the “call to order” movement, a return to monumental realism in European art. Her work exudes that dark and dubious allure of authoritarianism. She painted the Duchesse de la Salle in jackboots, one hand thrust in her pocket, exuding menace. It’s a portrait painted with the sheer theatrical enjoyment. I think it’s de Lempicka’s best work.
In 1933 she married Baron Raoul Kuffner, an owner of vast estates donated to his family brewers by Emperor Franz-Josef for the supplying of the imperial court. De Lempicka had already painted her future husband as a dandy desperado. She had also painted, and in doing so, disposed of, his mistress, dancer Nana de Herrera, selecting her as model for the most overtly decadent of her notorious Group of Four Nudes.
De Lempicka was never a consistently good painter. As with most fascistic folks, her swagger could be awfully mawkishness: Cubism + Kitsch. She became Baroness Kuffner, and then the desire for fame (or money) left her. The Art Deco age was done. Her later sentimental studies of old men playing guitars and tearful nuns are an anti-climax after the bitchy languor of her lesbian portraits.
The political terrors of Europe in the 1930s infringed on the couple’s holiday in Austria, where they were appalled to have their breakfast on the hotel veranda interrupted by a singing parade of Hitler Youth. In 1939, at the urging of de Lempicka, who was partly Jewish, the baron sold his estates and they moved to the USA. In New York City, she tried Abstract Expressionism without success, and was reduced to playing the part of a chic curiosity: “The Baroness with a Brush”. They moved to Beverly Hills where she painted celebrity portraits and still lifes.
De Lempicka died in 1980 in Mexico. Her ashes being scattered over the crater of volcano Mount Popocatepetl. After her death, her early Art Deco paintings were being shown and purchased once again after a resurgence of interest in Art Deco.
A stage play, Tamara, ran in Los Angeles for eleven years (1984–1995), making it the longest running play in Los Angeles, with 240 actors employed over the years.
Among her many female lovers were writers Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West, and Colette.
In February 2020, Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (1932) set a record for a work by de Lempicka by going for $22 million at Christie’s, London.