Self-portrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti) is Tamara Łempicka’s most famous and most reproduced work. It quickly became an iconic effigy of the modern woman of the interwar period.
Tamara Łempicka portrayed herself sitting behind the wheel of a sports car. Her regular facial features, alabaster complexion, and statuesque profile liken the artist to ancient Greek sculptures. This connotation is bolstered by the accumulation of bright, almost monochromatic elements: a flesh-coloured glove, a small, grey-and-beige aviator hat, and a windblown shawl of the same colour covering the artist’s neck. In the painting’s lower part, one can see the shiny, green-and-turquoise signature of the artist, stylised to resemble a modern, geometrised logo. ‘TJL’ letters, framed in a rectangle, are short for ‘Tamara Junosza Lempicka’. Although the artist usually signed her works as ‘de Lempicka’, this time she also used the Junosza coat of arms which belonged to her husband Tadeusz Łempicki.
By portraying herself as sitting in a car – a vehicle which is fast, elegant, and modern – Łempicka clearly makes a nod to the Futurism movement, characterised by its fascination with speed, technology, and urban life. It is possible that Łempicka was inspired by André Kertész’s 1927 photo, in which the Hungarian photographer immortalised a young woman in an aviator hat driving a sport car. The theme in Łempicka’s painting fits into the cult of the machine on one hand, and on the other portrays the car as a tool of women’s emancipation. A woman driving a car, especially in the 1920s, enters a sphere dominated by men. She is a modern amazon who exchanged her horse for a mechanical mode of transport.
The artist poses as a femme fatale – an independent, liberated, attractive and sometimes dangerous woman. It is emphasised by red lips, short hair, and a come-hither look cast down from half-closed eyelids directly at the viewer. The famous Self-portrait is consciously connected to the image created by Łempicka. The artist photographed herself in stylisations which made her resemble film stars (she was reportedly mistaken for Greta Garbo) and also sent photos of herself to luxury fashion magazines. Her strategy paid off – she was covered by Harper’s Bazaar among others. In January 1932, a reporter who interviewed Łempicka in Warsaw presented the painter to the readers of the Świat magazine as follows:
A totally Parisian silhouette. Big, bright and acute eyes, blond hair and a Greek nose. Carmine lips and ochre-manicured nails. Considerable height – for a woman. Ideal outfits, and the furs – the most expensive ones! Her image stirs up interest by itself.
Sculptural and geometrised composition used by Łempicka is very characteristic of her. The artist aptly combined cubist forms with a classical aesthetic, creating a combination of tradition and modernity in her painting. She used pure colours and the items portrayed by her had a polished surface and a metallic sheen. Łempicka’s art in the 1920s and the 1930s resembled luxury fashion magazine illustrations of the interwar period in a way. The aesthetic of her works fits them perfectly, as well as did the theme – primarily, the artist painted portraits of beautiful, elegant women, often tinged with eroticism.
The Self-portrait was commissioned by the German fashion magazine Die Dame. Reportedly, the publisher saw the artist driving a car in Monte Carlo and immediately asked her for a similar painting for a cover. Łempicka claimed that she was not recognised and the man was simply fascinated by the encountered scene. It does not seem probable, but it does fit the myth consciously created by the artist. Interestingly, at the time Łempicka drove a yellow Renault, but depicted a green Bugatti in the painting – she considered it to be more elegant.
In reality, at that time Łempicka already realised several projects for Die Dame, four covers in total – In the Middle of Summer (1928) and the wintry Saint Moritz (1929) to name just two of them. Her paintings also appeared on the covers of Polish magazines (of the Warsaw-based weekly Świat for example). The commercial commissions were very well paid and the wide distribution reinforced the artist’s recognizability.
Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti) gained massive popularity precisely as a reproduction. The image known from Die Dame’s cover quickly became an iconic portrayal of a modern, liberated woman and one of the art déco movement’s flagship examples. The original painting, painted with oil on a relatively small wooden board (35 x 27 cm), is currently a part of a private collection. It was exhibited as a stand-alone artwork quite late, only in 1972.
Originally written in Polish by Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka, Nov 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Dec 2017
Tamara Łempicka, Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti)
oil on board