Tamara De Lempicka
The Art History Archive - Art Deco

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Biography of Tamara De Lempicka:

By Charles Moffat - 2008.

Born May 16, 1898, Warsaw, Poland.
Died March 18, 1980 Cuernavaca, Mexico.

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.

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.

Chronology of Paintings
by Tamara De Lempicka:

  • Two Friends - 1923
  • Le Modele - 1925
  • Portrait of Prince Eristoff - 1925
  • Portrait of the Duchess de La Salle - 1925
  • Reclining Nude - 1925
  • Self-Portrait in Green Bugatti - 1925
  • Portrait du Marquis Sommi - 1925
  • The Marquis D'Afflitto on a Staircase - 1926
  • Kizette on the Balcony - 1927
  • Portrait of Grand Duke Gabriel - c.1927
  • Two Girls - 1928
  • Printemps - 1928
  • Kizette Communiante - 1928
  • Portrait of Man in Overcoat (Portrait of Tadeusz De Lempicki) - 1928
  • Andromeda - 1929
  • The Musician in Blue - 1929
  • Dr. Boucard - 1929
  • Portrait of Romana de la Salle - 1929
  • Saint-Moritz - 1929
  • Women at the Bath - 1929
  • Femme a la Colombe - 1929-30
  • The Green Turban - 1930
  • The Telephone - 1930
  • Girl in a Green Dress - 1930
  • Idylle - 1931
  • Nude with Sails - 1931
  • Portrait of Madame Boucard - 1931
  • Portrait of Pierre de Montaut - 1931
  • Adam and Eve - 1932
  • Portrait of Madame M. - 1932
  • Portrait of Marjorie Ferry - 1932
  • Portrait of Ira P. - 1933
  • Portrait of Suzy Solidor - 1933
  • Le Bretonne - 1934
  • Girl Sleeping - 1935
  • The Refugees - 1937
  • Lady in Blue - 1939
  • Mother Superior - 1939
  • Key and Hand - 1941
  • Amethyste - 1946
  • Breastfeeding - Date Unknown
  • Calla Lilies - Date Unknown
  • Dormeuse - Date Unknown
  • Summer - Date Unknown
  • Sketch of Madame Allan Bott - Date Unknown
  • Portrait of Madame Allan Bott - Date Unknown
  • Woman in Red (The Rose Tunic) - Date Unknown
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    A Life of Deco and Decadence:

    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.

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