Socialite, cosmopolitan, lover, artist
Born at the turn of the 20th century, the Warsaw-born Łempicka began travelling very young and spent most of her career in the West – mostly in Paris and the US. This explains why many Americans most often considered her a French artist, but in truth – she was the ultimate cosmopolitan. She lived in every exciting city you can think of, from Saint Petersburg to Los Angeles and from London to New York. Her chosen public name reflected that, evolving from Maria Górska into Tamara de Lempicka to entice jet-setting intrigue.
She portrayed the high society of Paris, Milan and New York: women in bold, colourful dresses, men in suits and bow-ties.
I painted kings and prostitutes, those who inspire me and those who make me feel vibrations.
She was influenced by cubism as well as futurist aesthetics and neoclassicism as represented by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In Paris, where she lived during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ with her first husband, Polish lawyer Tadeusz Łempicki, she became a prominent figure in the art world.
Although she presented her paintings in Salon d’Automne, Salon des Indépendents, and Salon des Tuilerie, she didn’t rise to fame just for her work: she was a socialite, a lover of many, Jean Cocteau’s and James Joyce’s friend. She wasn’t limited by society’s constraints: she was married yet bisexual with many affairs with both men and women under her belt. She went to clubs, took drugs, was independent and as free as one can be. She famously said:
I live life in the margins of society and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.
Her reputation was a fortune and a curse at the same time: when she moved to New York in 1939 with her second husband, Baron Raoul Kuffner, she wasn’t treated seriously, and her art in post-modern USA was considered anachronistic. She began painting still life at first, then turned to abstract painting, but didn’t repeat her earlier success. When Baron Kuffner died in 1961, she went – ever so extravagantly – on three trips around the world, before finally deciding to settle in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she died in 1980.
The Art Deco revival began in the late 1960s. A retrospective exhibition of Łempicka’s work was organised in Paris’ Luxembourg Gallery in 1973. A few years later, Canadian playwright John Krizanc wrote the play Tamara about her famous meeting with Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio. It was staged first in Toronto, then in Los Angeles and New York. Most recently, one of the artist’s affairs, one with one of her models, was fictionalised in a novel entitled The Last Nude by American writer Ellis Avery in 2013. But that’s not the only way literature has embraced Łempicka’s art.
Łempicka’s art has become very popular among publishers who repeatedly decide to put some of her most famous paintings on book covers. Young Girl in Green Dress appears on the cover of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the most iconic portrayal of the Roaring Twenties – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, while Smoke and Other Early Stories by another classic of American modernism Djuna Barnes was published with Łempicka’s Card Players on the cover.
Most importantly though, Łempicka’s works have been used as covers for Penguin’s editions of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, Anthem and We The Living. Harmonious, strong figures – superheroes, maybe – showing no sign of emotion, as well as the modernist aesthetic are very much in tune with Rand’s controversial individualist philosophy Objectivism. Her idea of what an artist should do is filled with echoes of Łempicka, as she expresses through the words of Howard Roark praising Stephen Mallory in The Fountainhead:
I think you are the best sculptor we have. I think it because your figures are not what men are, but what men could be – and should be. Because you’ve gone beyond the probable and made us see what is possible, but possible only through you. Because your figures are more devoid of contempt for humanity than any work I’ve ever seen. Because you have a magnificent respect for the human being. Because your figures are the heroic in man.
If, as most people do, we decide to call Łempicka a Polish painter, she’s definitely Poland’s most expensive artist. Her paintings are now sold in Sotheby’s for millions of dollars.
Her art was never meant to be for galleries only. One of her most famous paintings, the Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti was ordered by the editor of the German fashion magazine Die Dame, when he saw Tamara driving her car. It became almost a template for how independent modern women were portrayed at the time.
In the 1930s, she collaborated with Revlon on a campaign for a new lipstick. It’s hardly surprising – her paintings are still an inspiration for fashion creators up to this day. Satin and jersey dresses, bold, block colours, as well as geometrical forms became an archetype for fashion photography, showing women in stiff poses, with cold gazes and beautiful, yet inscrutable faces.
Legendary Vogue photographer Steven Meisel recreated Łempicka’s style in several shoots, including a pictorial set entitled Morning Beauty, starring Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova in 2008. Red-haired music icon Florence Welch in her photoshoot for the cover of the single Shake It Out taken by Karl Lagerfeld looks as if she stepped out from one of Lempicka’s Art Deco portraits. Photographers Marijana Gligic and Eugenio Recuenco recreated poses, colours and geometrical forms taken from Łempicka quite directly in their editorials.
Clothes themselves have also become an inspiraton for designers: Armani and Lanvin created dresses very much inspired by Łempicka’s most famous paintings such as Blue Woman with a Guitar and Girl in a Green Dress. Max Mara’s Spring 2010 collection – presented by the Polish model Małgorzata Bela – was also inspired by the minimalistic yet sensual silhouettes from the Art Deco period.
As if literature and fashion weren’t enough, Łempicka became an inspiration also for the designers of the famous video game series BioShock. The game takes place in the fictional underwater city named Rapture, which was built in the 1940s as a laissez-faire utopia – something Ayn Rand might have come up with – but turns into a dystopian nightmare. Łempicka’s art is referenced in the paintings hanging in the city’s halls and by the overall aesthetic, especially the style in which the female heroines are painted.
Madonna’s favourite artist
Łempicka’s biggest fan – and one of several major collectors, alongside Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand – is Madonna. The pop icon has even incorporated elements of the painter’s aesthetics into her music videos Express Yourself (1989) and Vogue (1990) directed by David Fincher, where she references, among others, the androgynous Portrait of the Duchess de la Salle. Her silhouette echoes Łempicka’s cubist, geometric style. The video for Open Your Heart (1987) actually starts with a shoot of a giant reproduction of Łempicka’s painting Andromeda that Madonna had bought in real life, anticipating the renaissance of the Polish painter’s art.
The queen of pop also took part in Louis Vuitton’s 2009 campaign, photographed by Steven Meisel, and influenced by Man Ray’s solarised photographs and Łempicka’s paintings. Lush backgrounds, draperies, hyper-realistic colours and of course stiff poses that ooze sensuality and independence are a clear reference to the aesthetic of the Roaring Twenties in general, and Tamara Łempicka in particular.
The dark side of beauty
After attending the exhibition Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco Icon at London’s Royal Academy in 2004, cultural historian Fiona MacCarthy wrote in The Guardian newspaper, that the artist’s work from the pre-war period is representative of a time when Europe was heading towards its destruction:
De Lempicka was an artist of the Fascist superworld: her portraits were allied to the ‘call to order’ movement, the return to monumental realism in European art. Her art exudes the dark and dubious glamour of authoritarian discipline. When she paints the Duchesse de la Salle, the Duchess is in jackboots, one hand thrust in her pocket in an attitude of menace. It is a tremendous portrait, painted with the sheer theatrical enjoyment, the unerring sense of decor, of De Lempicka's best work.
It seems Łempicka’s portraits of the wealthy and decadent European elite in all their glory can therefore be seen as their swansong, adding another layer to the fascinating body of work of this ever-inspiring artist. Her capturing of a moment in history has continued to ripple throughout every artistic area since, and it seems that her work will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Author: Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, Dec 2017