Tamara de Lempicka
|Tamara de Lempicka|
16 May 1898
Warsaw, Congress Poland, Russian Empire
|Died||18 March 1980
|Education||Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris|
Tamara Łempicka, commonly known as Tamara de Lempicka (16 May 1898 – 18 March 1980), was a Polish Art Deco painter and "the first woman artist to be a glamour star". Influenced by Cubism, Lempicka became the leading representative of the Art Deco style across two continents, a favorite artist of many Hollywood stars, referred to as 'the baroness with a brush'. She was the most fashionable portrait painter of her generation among the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy, painting duchesses and grand dukes and socialites. Through her network of friends, she was also able to display her paintings in the most elite salons of the era. Lempicka was criticized as well as admired for her 'perverse Ingrism', referring to her modern restatement of the master Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, as displayed in her work Group of Four Nudes (1925) among other studies.
She was born Maria Górska in Warsaw, Congress Poland under the rulership of the Russian Empire, into a wealthy and prominent family. Lempicka was the daughter of Boris Gurwik-Górski, a Russian Jewish attorney for a French trading company, and Malwina Dekler, a Polish socialite who met him at one of the European spas. Maria had two siblings and was the middle child. She attended a boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and spent the winter of 1911 with her grandmother in Italy and on the French Riviera, where she was treated to her first taste of the Great Masters of Italian painting. In 1912, her parents divorced, and Maria went to live with her rich Aunt Stefa in St. Petersburg, Russia. When her mother remarried, she became determined to break away to make a life of her own. In 1913, at the age of fifteen, while attending the opera, Maria spotted the man she became determined to marry. She promoted her campaign through her well-connected uncle, and in 1916 she married Tadeusz Łempicki (1888–1951) in St. Petersburg—a well-known ladies' man, gadabout, and lawyer by title, who was tempted by the significant dowry.
In 1917, during the Russian Revolution, Tadeusz Łempicki was arrested in the dead of night by the Bolsheviks. Maria searched the prisons for him and after several weeks, with the help of the Swedish consul, she secured his release. They traveled to Copenhagen then to London and finally to Paris, to where Maria's family had also escaped.
Paris and painting
In Paris, the Lempickis lived for a while from the sale of family jewels. Tadeusz proved unwilling or unable to find suitable work, which added to the domestic strain, while Maria gave birth to Kizette Lempicka. Her sister, the designer Adrienne Gorska, made furniture for her Paris apartment and studio in the Art Deco style, complete with chrome-plated furniture. The flat at 7 Rue Mechain was built by the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens known for his clean lines.
Lempicka's distinctive and bold artistic style developed at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière under the instruction of Nabi painter, Maurice Denis, as well as the Cubist André Lhote. The young painter was particularly influenced by what Lhote sometimes referred to as "soft cubism" and by the "synthetic cubism" of Denis, epitomizing the cool yet sensual side of the Art Deco movement. For her, Picasso "embodied the novelty of destruction". She thought that many of the Impressionists drew badly and employed "dirty" colors. Lempicka's technique would be novel, clean, precise, and elegant.
For her first major show, in Milan, Italy in 1925, under the sponsorship of Count Emmanuele Castelbarco, Lempicka painted 28 new works in six months. A portrait would take three weeks of work, allowing for the nuisance of dealing with a difficult sitter; by 1927, Lempicka could charge 50,000 French francs for a portrait, a sum equal to about US$2,000 then and more than ten times as much today. Through Castelbarco, she was introduced to Italy's great man of letters and notorious lover, Gabriele d'Annunzio. She visited the poet twice at his villa on Lake Garda, seeking to paint his portrait; he in turn was set on seduction. After her unsuccessful attempts to secure the commission, she went away angry, while d'Annunzio also remained unsatisfied.
In 1925, Lempicka painted her iconic work Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) for the cover of the German fashion magazine Die Dame. As summed up by the magazine Auto-Journal in 1974, "the self-portrait of Tamara de Lempicka is a real image of the independent woman who asserts herself. Her hands are gloved, she is helmeted, and inaccessible; a cold and disturbing beauty [through which] pierces a formidable being—this woman is free!" In 1927 Lempicka won her first major award, the first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux, France, for her portrait of Kizette on the Balcony.
The Roaring Twenties
In Paris during the Roaring Twenties, Tamara de Lempicka became part of the bohemian life: she knew Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide. Famous for her libido, she was bisexual. Her affairs with both men and women were conducted in ways that were considered scandalous at the time. She often used formal and narrative elements in her portraits, and her nude studies produced overpowering effects of desire and seduction. In the 1920s she became closely associated with lesbian and bisexual women in writing and artistic circles, such as Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West, and Colette. She also became involved with Suzy Solidor, a night club singer at the Boîte de Nuit, whose portrait she later painted. Her husband eventually tired of their arrangement and abandoned her in 1927. They were divorced in 1931 in Paris.
Lempicka rarely saw her daughter. When Kizette was not away at boarding school (France or England), the girl was often with her grandmother Malvina. When Lempicka informed her mother and daughter that she would not be returning from America for Christmas in 1929, Malvina was so angry that she burned Lempicka's enormous collection of designer hats; Kizette watched them burn, one by one.
Kizette rarely saw her mother, but was immortalized in her paintings. Lempicka painted her only child repeatedly, leaving a striking portrait series: Kizette in Pink, 1926; Kizette on the Balcony, 1927; Kizette Sleeping, 1934; Portrait of Baroness Kizette, 1954–5, etc. In other paintings, the women depicted tend to resemble Kizette.
In 1928, her longtime patron the Baron Raoul Kuffner von Diószeg (1886–1961) visited her studio and commissioned her to paint his mistress. Lempicka finished the portrait, then took the mistress's place in the Baron's life. She travelled to the United States for the first time in 1929, to paint a commissioned portrait for Rufus T. Bush and to arrange a show of her work at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. The show went well but the money she earned was lost when the bank she used collapsed following the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
Lempicka continued both her heavy workload and her frenetic social life through the next decade. The Great Depression had little effect on her; in the early 1930s she was painting King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of Greece. Museums began to collect her works. In 1933 she traveled to Chicago where she worked with Georgia O'Keeffe, Santiago Martínez Delgado and Willem de Kooning. Her social position was cemented when she married her lover, Baron Kuffner, on 3 February 1934 in Zurich (his wife had died the year before). The Baron took her out of her quasi-bohemian life and finally secured her place in high society again, with a title to boot. She repaid him by convincing him to sell many of his estates in Eastern Europe and move his money to Switzerland. She saw the coming of World War II from a long way off, much sooner than most of her contemporaries. She did make a few concessions to the changing times as the decade passed; her art featured a few refugees and common people, and even a Christian saint or two, as well as the usual aristocrats and cold nudes.
In the winter of 1939, Lempicka and her husband started an "extended vacation" in the United States. She immediately arranged for a show of her work in New York, though the Baron and Baroness chose to settle in Beverly Hills, California, living in the former residence of Hollywood director King Vidor. She cultivated a Garboesque manner. The Baroness would visit the Hollywood stars on their studio sets, such as Tyrone Power, Walter Pidgeon, and George Sanders and they would come to her studio to see her at work. She did war relief work, like many others at the time; and she managed to get Kizette out of Nazi-occupied Paris, via Lisbon, in 1941. Some of her paintings of this time had a Salvador Dalí quality, as displayed in Key and Hand, 1941. In 1943, the couple relocated to New York City. Even though she continued to live in style, socializing continuously, her popularity as a society painter had diminished greatly. They traveled to Europe frequently to visit fashionable spas and so that the Baron could attend to Hungarian refugee work. For a while, she continued to paint in her trademark style, although her range of subject matter expanded to include still lifes, and even some abstracts. Yet eventually she adopted a new style, using palette knife instead of brushes. Her new work was not well received when she exhibited in 1962 at the Iolas Gallery. Lempicka determined never to show her work again, and retired from active life as a professional artist.
Insofar as she still painted at all, Lempicka sometimes reworked earlier pieces in her new style. The crisp and direct Amethyste (1946), for example, became the pink and fuzzy Girl with Guitar (1963). She showcased at the Ror Volmar Gallery in Paris from 30 May to 17 June 1961.
After Baron Kuffner's death from a heart attack on 3 November 1961 on the ocean liner Liberté en route to New York, she sold most of her possessions and made three around-the-world trips by ship. Finally Lempicka moved to Houston, Texas to be with Kizette and her family. (Kizette had married a man named Harold Foxhall, who was then chief geologist for the Dow Chemical Company; they had two daughters.) There she began her difficult and disagreeable later years. Kizette served as Tamara's business manager, social secretary, and factotum, and suffered under her mother's controlling domination and petulant behavior. Tamara complained that not only were the paints and other artists' materials now inferior to the "old days," but that people in the 1970s lacked the special qualities and "breeding" that inspired her art. It is little surprise, then, that she repainted her iconic "Autoportrait" (1929) twice between 1974 and 1979; "Autoportrait II" was sold, though she hung "Autoportrait III" in her retirement apartments, where it would remain until her death.
In 1978 Tamara moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to live among an aging international set and some of the younger aristocrats. After Kizette's husband died of cancer, she attended her mother for three months until Tamara died in her sleep on March 18, 1980. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered over the volcano of Popocatepetl on 27 March 1980 by her Mexican friend Victor Manuel Contreras and her daughter Kizette.
Lempicka lived long enough for the wheel of fashion to turn a full circle: before she died a new generation had discovered her art and greeted it with enthusiasm. A retrospective in 1973 drew positive reviews. At the time of her death, her early Art Deco paintings were being shown and purchased once again. A stage play, Tamara, was inspired by her meeting with Gabriele D'Annunzio and was first staged in Toronto; it then ran in Los Angeles for eleven years (1984–1995) at the VFW Post, making it the longest running play in Los Angeles, and some 240 actors were employed over the years. The play was also subsequently produced at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City. In 2005, the actress and artist Kara Wilson performed Deco Diva, a one-woman stage play based on Lempicka's life. Her life and her relationship with one of her models is fictionalized in Ellis Avery's novel The Last Nude, which won the American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards Barbara Gittings Literature Award for 2013.
American singer-songwriter and actress Madonna is an admirer and collector of Lempicka's work and has lent paintings to events and museums. Madonna has also featured Lempicka's work in her music videos for "Open Your Heart" (1987), "Express Yourself" (1989), "Vogue" (1990) and "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" (1998). She also used paintings by Lempicka on the sets of her 1987 Who's That Girl and 1990 Blond Ambition world tours.
Robert Dassanowsky's book Telegrams from the Metropole: Selected Poems 1980-1998 includes the poems "Tamara de Lempicka" and "La Donna d'Oro" dedicated to Kizette de Lempicka.
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