Skyscrapers, Silks and Sirens: The High Society of Tamara de Lempicka
By Louise Wheeler
If art is a mirror of life, then the decorative, hyper-realist paintings of Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) embody her passion for glamour and success, with her works from the 1920s and ‘30s reminiscing the perfectly constructed film stills of the movie age.
Born Tamara Gorska, into a wealthy Russian-Polish family, she lived in St Petersburg prior to the tumult of the 1917 Russian revolution. She apocryphally hated having her portrait done as a child, detesting both the experience and the final work. She decided to challenge the painter’s portrait of her, by proving that she could paint a portrait of her sister. The seeds of her future success as an artist are sown in this early experience. Indeed, the parallel between Tamara’s life and the movies, during the golden age of which her most well-known work was created, is fantastically apparent; she captivated a presence similar to a Hollywood film star, with her life and her art perfectly constructed to convey a glamourous spectacle of high society and decadent living. Simultaneously, she exposed this as a hollow façade. Her work of the 1920s and ‘30s has been caught in a crossfire of criticism. On one hand, she is criticised for being shallow, a realisation of the decorative appeal of Art Deco; yet on the other, her work is seen as a masterly embodiment of neo-Cubist and classical form capturing the aesthetic of the Jazz Age.
The comparison between de Lempicka’s life and films is evident in her fluctuating fortunes. From her time in St Petersburg during the First World War, de Lempicka grew accustomed to a life of luxury that was at odds with the harsh reality of the lives of a majority of the Russian people. As such, her identification with the aristocracy and bourgeois values positioned her world in stark contrast with the rising socialist feelings. De Lempicka’s marriage in 1916 to the lawyer Tadeusz Lempicki was threatened after the Bolshevik revolution, when Lempicki was captured and imprisoned by the secret police. In this trauma, de Lempicka had to secure her husband’s release. The turmoil of political change provoked the couple’s emigration, firstly to Copenhagen, and then to Paris. In this reversal of fortune, de Lempicka found herself the sole provider for her husband and daughter in post-war Paris. She became determined to re-accumulate her wealth and decided to earn her living by painting.
In Paris, de Lempicka sought art instruction from Maurice Denis (1870-1943) at the Académie Ranson, and latterly from André Lhote (1885-1962). Maurice Denis had been a member of the Nabis group, whose style focused on strong design. Denis instructed de Lempicka to concentrate on the solid construction of form and colour, in combination with an emphasis on contouring. De Lempicka’s distinct contrasts between light and shade, and her precise, exact style clearly reflect Denis’s ideas, with the artist herself claiming:
This doctrine of clear form in de Lempicka’s work can be further explained by the influence of Lhote, who practised a form of conservative Cubism, which combined traditional, academic subject matter with the innovations of Cubist form, exemplified by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Georges Braque. In uniting the radical formal experiments of the Cubists with conventional genres, such as the nude and the portrait, de Lempicka produced a synthesis that found popular approval amongst her bourgeois clientele of 1920s Paris. She aimed her work at this market, attempting to ensure sales. Further stylistic similarities have been noted between the neo-classicism of Ingres (1780-1867) and de Lempicka’s work, which reflect the wider rejuvenation of classicism in the 1920s. The influence of the master Bronzino (1503-1572) can also be seen in de Lempicka’s portraits, which share a similar crystalised coldness in the depiction of the human form. De Lempicka’s use of neo-classicism enabled her to paint impressive portraits of the patrons she had cultivated, for example the pharmaceutical millionaire Pierre Boucard, his wife and his daughter. In uniting her style with a clever sense of commercialism, de Lempicka refused to be the stereotype of the starving artist.
De Lempicka created an ideal of modernity aligned with a timeless, classicised view of the power of the human form. The sharpness and clarity of her forms signalled her position as the Art Deco painter, with her glamourous aesthetics representing and shaping the style of the elite world that she depicted and strove to emulate. De Lempicka’s desire to display her success, as well as to assimilate into the life of her wealthy clients, was manifested in her apartment and studio in Paris on the Rue Méchain. It was designed by the designer and architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) and was made to resemble an Art Deco vision of perfect form in glass and chrome. De Lempicka hosted parties here for an array of distinguished names. From within the cultural milieu of Jazz Age Paris, de Lempicka’s paintings repeatedly depict the distinguished, cultivated individual at the centre of modern life and advancement. She contrasts the flowing forms of her sitters’ dresses and suits with a mise-en-scene of skyscrapers and metropolises. These contrasting textures and shapes are definitive of the decadence and industrialisation that post-war capitalism created and which would implode in the 1929 Wall Street Crash.
One painting of de Lempicka’s that exemplifies the collision between machine aesthetic and 1920s decadence is the iconic Autoportrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti), commissioned for the fashion magazine Die Dame. In this self-portrait, de Lempicka combines femininity with modernity, in a closely cropped composition reminiscent of a film star’s publicity image. The painting suggests a contradiction between the idea that modernity could be a liberating force for woman, but that it is also empty and based on consumerism. She does this by portraying the isolation of the car in an abstracted and ambiguous space. She has her freedom, but she is alone and stern.
De Lempicka emigrated to America with her second husband Baron Raoul Kuffner in 1939 because of the growing threat of Nazi Germany. This drove a change in her art from the power of her Art Deco style of the ‘20s and ‘30s. She began to include experiments with religious themes and latterly, Abstract Expressionism. De Lempicka continued to have major international exhibitions throughout her career, including the 1972 Galerie du Luxembourg retrospective in Paris, which displayed her work from 1925-35. This exhibition suggests the prominence that this body of work has in the conception of de Lempicka’s identity as an artist. Her work is strongly associated with the hedonism of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and its decline. De Lempicka created a public persona for herself in order to promote her work, and she shaped her style around the demands of her clients. Her portraits of the 1920s and ‘30s convey a romanticised, perfected view of high society, which will always be captivating and drive cultural nostalgia.
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Perry, Gill. ‘Modernism and representations of les femmes peintres’ and ‘Decoration, modernity and femininity.’ In Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-Garde: Modernism and ‘feminine’ art, 1900 to the late 1920s. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995, pp. 5-10 and 115-118.
‘Tamara de Lempicka.’ Accessed December 9, 2017. http://www.delempicka.org/artwork/1930-1933.html