Tamara Łempicka painting her husband's portrait, around 1930, photo: Therese Bonney / AKG-IMAGES / East News

Painter of Polish descent who figures among the most significant representatives of Art Deco aesthetics. The aesthetics developed by Lempicka appealed to the tastes of the affluent bourgeoisie of the early 20th century.

Tamara Łempicka was born in Moscow in 1896 and died in Mexico in 1980. Her father, Borys Gurwik-Gorski was a wealthy Russian Jew, a merchant or an industrialist, while her mother, Malwina née Dekler, came from an affluent Polish family. Tamara and her siblings, Adrienne and Stańczyk, were raised by their mother and the Dekler grandparents in Warsaw. The Deklers were part of the cultural and social elite, friends of Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Artur Rubinstein, among others.

Her father disappeared from Tamara's life when she was only a few years old and the circumstances of his leaving remained the artist's painful and deeply hidden secret. She claimed her parents got divorced, but it is believed that Borys Gorski committed suicide. As an adult Lempicka liked to emphasise that she was Polish. She probably even forged her birth certificate claiming Warsaw instead of Moscow as her birthplace. Attempts to reconstruct her life and to interpret the artist's pieces prove how deeply her biography was interwoven with her work. It is not just her paintings that let you easily sense the atmosphere of the world in which the artist lived. The biography she liked to mythologize, too, shows the importance of self-aggrandisement in her artistic career.

More photos (11)

In 1911, Tamara moved to Saint Petersburg to live with her relatives Stefa and Maurycy Stifer. There at the Academy of Fine Arts she took drawing classes, and greatly enjoyed social and cultural life in the evenings. The Stifers took her to ballet shows at the Mariinsky Theatre and at the Yusupov Princes' private theatre, as well as to exclusive concerts and recitals at Tsarskoye Selo, the summer residence of the Romanovs. During one of Saint Petersburg's elite balls Tamara met her husband, Tadeusz Łempicki, a young lawyer and socialite. His family, who came from Warsaw, lived in Saint Petersburg at the Great Duke's Vladimir Alexandrovich's "reserve palace". The mother, Maria Norwid, was the niece of Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Tamara married Łempicki in Saint Petersburg in 1916; their daughter Maria Krystyna, called Kizette, was born that same year. Tadeusz Łempicki was arrested during the Russian Revolution of 1917. After he was released the husband and wife met in Denmark, which they left for Paris in the summer of 1918.

Tamara Lempicka began her studies in Maurice Denis's studio at the Academie Ranson in Paris. He was a demanding and disciplined teacher under whose tutelage the students mastered the basics of landscape composition and plumbed the mysteries of painting methods. His views on art and his painterly work, which above all showed the attachment to the aesthetic and decorative qualities of art, too, were not without significance. Yet it were the tips given by her next teacher, Andre Lhote, painter, decorator, critic and art theoretician, that proved essential in Lempicka's work. Lhote was a promoter of modernising salon painting by using the principles of experimental painting from Impressionist ideas concerning colour up to Cubist constructions of space within paintings. Lhote's work had nothing in common with the avant-garde explorations then present in painting, and which in the case of Impressionism, and Cubism in particular, questioned the system of presentation rooted still in the tradition of the Renaissance. His goal was to work out a compromise, an agreeable form which would flatter the conservative tastes of the affluent bourgeoisie, while giving the art public a sense that the paintings they bought were "moving with the times".

Most of all, in Lhote's studio Lempicka learned how to skilfully merge modern forms of illustration with the great academic tradition, such a Poussin's, David's or Ingres's classic art forms. Her works were marked by post-cubist stylisation, the forms made of simplified blocks, yet arranged according to the classic order. Lempicka broadened her interest in art tradition. She was fascinated by the art of the Renaissance and went to Italy to study the works of the old masters; inspired by this art class she decided to use luminous, clear and vivid colours, finishing each detail in her paintings with extraordinary precision. Stylised, often Mannerist forms and figures added a decorative quality to her works. The combination of tradition and modernism as well as the aforementioned decorativeness - all very appealing for the public of the time -determined the painter's exceptional popularity. In the mid-1920s, during the peak of the Art Deco aesthetics, Lempicka began to work her way up. She showed her works in the salons of Paris and abroad, including Poland.

Her popularity soon translated into financial success. The aesthetics developed by Lempicka appealed to the tastes of the affluent bourgeoisie, and so did the topics taken up by the artist. She focused mainly on portraits and still life but she mostly painted nudes. Nude portraits were designed to decorate the salons of the affluent bourgeois. Female aristocrats and the wives of rich industrialists ordered their portraits in large numbers, more often than not life-size. The number of these orders resulted in an almost mass production of paintings. At that time Lempicka would every so often paint for more than twelve hours a day. The art critics, however, frequently treated her works with reluctance. Different categories, from the aesthetic to ethical ones, were often mixed up in their opinions when they condemned the painter for "corporality verging on kitsch or sin at least". They called her "the propagator of perverse painting", emphasising the clearly homoerotic character of her nude paintings. Obviously, this aspect of her painting won her the popularity and interest among mass publics.

The unquestionable quality of Lempicka's art lay in its ability to adapt interpretations of the surrounding world to the language of painting created by the artist. Her portraits made up a gallery of contemporary types, the artist's every-day heroes, including those who were part of the social and cultural elite. The individual merged with the typical, and the artistic form matched the subject perfectly. The atmosphere of the roaring Twenties was evocatively pictured in her paintings. Her self-portrait Tamara in the Green Bugatti from 1929 can be seen as the symbolic image of an emancipated woman of the time. An article in La Pologne remarked that de Łempicka's "models are modern women. They know neither hypocrisy nor shame of the bourgeois morality. They are tanned from the sun and wind, and their bodies are lithe as those of the Amazons". The times during which Lempicka created her art were strongly marked by decadence. If one looks at her work and private life from that point of view, they indeed seem to have all the hallmarks of that period. Her lifestyle was far removed from the commonly accepted social norms. Lempicka's did not prudishly hide her many love affairs with both men and women, whether true or believed. Her well-known acquaintance with Gabriel d'Annunzio provoked a terminal crisis which led to divorce in 1927.

Lempicka remarried in 1934 to Baron Roul Kuffner, owner of the greatest landed estate in Austro-Hungary. She decided to leave Europe in the winter of 1938, most probably alarmed by the growing wave of Fascism in Europe. Because of Kuffner's origin they decided to close down the estate and leave for the United States. In the 1940s Lempicka grew to be the favourite portrait painter of Hollywood stars, as well as of the social and financial elites. There she also became famous for her rich and decadent social life. Nevertheless her popularity faded with the radical changes in post-war art, along with the turn to the Surrealist and abstract tradition. Lempicka's career declined despite the artist's dramatic attempts to change her style, imitations of Surrealist landscapes and expressionist, textural abstraction. After the death of her husband in 1962, Tamara Lempicka gave up painting and moved to Mexico where she died in 1980.

Sources:

  • Alain Blondel, "Tamara De Lempicka: Catalogue Raisonné 1921-1979", Royal Academy Books, London 2004;
  • Laura Claridge, "Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence", Clarkson Potter, New York 1999;
  • Ellen Thormann, "Tamara de Lempicka: Kunstkritik und Künstlerinnen in Paris", Reimer, Berlin 1993.

Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, July 2010.
Translated by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer