T.Lempicka

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A paper discussing the life and works of Art Deco portraitist Tamara de Lempicka

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T.Lempicka

  1. 1. -1 During the tumultuous twenties the Parisian art world exploded, introducing the world to new and exciting artists. In this fertile environment female artists were gaining momentum in the fight against being labeled as decorative painters. Tamara de Lempicka struggled throughout her career to be accepted as a serious and gifted painter of immense talent and skill. She was a thoroughly modern woman with a deep respect for the classicism of the Renaissance masters and formal technique. Lempicka’s brilliant use of color, attention to line and form and preternatural luminosity and finish establish Tamara de Lempicka as one of the most dynamic artists of the 20th century. The artist was born Tamara Rosalia Gurwick-Gorska on May 11th, 1898 in Moscow. While the artist gives the year 1898 as her birth year, she was known to lie about her age and various family documents imply her actual birth year to be closer to 1895. Lempicka was of Polish descent yet several documents state the family resided in Moscow, traveling often to Warsaw to holiday.1 Many of the accounts of the artists life are contradictory as it seems the artist often fused fantasy and reality in her recollections. Her parents divorced when she was five and her father is rarely mentioned thereafter. Lempicka remained close with her mother and grandmother who was the impetus for the artists interest in art. At the age of thirteen, the artist, feigning a severe cough, convinced her grandmother Clementine to take her on a trip to Italy to take advantage of the more benign climate. While in Italy, Clementine led the young painter on a tour of the works of the great masters expounding on such subjects as treatment of light, brushstroke and composition as well as other tenets of art. While on their travels Clementine hired a young Frenchman to teach Tamara to paint watercolors. 2This trip was so influential to the painter that she returned to Italy yearly to study the works of the great masters and
  2. 2. 15th century painting. She seemed particularly attracted to the Italian use of color and the Northern masters treatment of light. When finished with her formal education, Tamara went to live with her wealthy Aunt Stefa and Uncle Maurice in St. Petersburg, Russia. Living with her Aunt and Uncle, Tamara indulged her taste for luxury and society life. It was in St. Petersburg that the young Tamara Gorska First met and fell in love with Tadeusz Lempicki. Tamara Gorska married Tadeusz Lempicki in 1915 or 1916 when she was approximately twenty years old.3 In the winter of 1917 the Bolshevik secret police arrested Tadeusz; Lempicka searched the prisons of the newly named Petrograd for her husband until she was able to enlist the help of the Swedish consul. The price of her husband’s freedom was Mrs. Lempicka herself.4 The Lempiccy escaped St. Petersburg to Paris and there established themselves among the refugee aristocracy now gathered in Paris. Once in Paris the reality of their situation began to weigh on the little family. Tadeusz either couldn’t or wouldn’t find a job and in late 1919 Tamara broke down to her practical younger sister saying, “We have no money, and he beats me.” To which Adrienne replied then you must work.” It is this moment that the artist credits with the inspiration for her painting career.5 By the end of 1919 Tamara de Lempicka enrolled in the Academie Ransom where she studied under Maurice Denis. After becoming disillusioned with Monsieur Denis, Lempicka went to study with Andre Lhote. Under Lhote, Lempicka learned to emphasize spatial balance and form and perhaps most important, she developed her penchant for strong, clear colors. Lempicka went on to show three pieces in the Salon d’Automne in the winter of 1922, of which both her sister Adrienne and former instructor Maurice Denis sat on the
  3. 3. committee that juried the exhibition.6 It was during this time that Tamara began to alternately use both the feminine and masculine form of her name perhaps in order to avoid the categorization often accorded to women artists of the time as primarily decorative. She later explained to an Italian friend that she felt she deserved the respect the masculine form inspired. Lempicka fought for entire career to be taken seriously as a dominant creative presence in the art world.7 While she did create several abstract works, Lempicka is primarily known as a portrait artist of the Art Deco style. She painted the best and brightest of society as well as aggressive, nudes of prostitutes; Another example of the paradox that is Tamara de Lempicka. While maintaining the illusion of the propriety due her class, Lempicka would roam the gutters of Monmarte at night experimenting with drugs and sex, only to return home in the early hours to paint in a cocaine frenzy until she collapsed.8 One of her more memorable nudes, Andromeda (Figure 1)reveals the implicit eroticism Lempicka came to be known for. In Lempicka’s 1928 painting of a seated female nude with wrists chained the artist uses the figure to create a strong diagonal set against the vertical lines of the urban setting in the background. Lempicka’s Andromeda has a thickened neck, characteristic of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, reflecting the influence of her former teacher Andre Lhote. Again, the artist limits her palette to grays, the earthy tones of the models flesh and her seductive red lips. The subject is lushly modeled, displaying Lempicka’s talent for light and form. The planes of the nude figure’s body are more realistically rendered than the heavily stylized forms of earlier paintings such as Perspective, 1923. The progression of Lempicka’s work illustrates her move away from Cubism towards her own distinct style,
  4. 4. often referred to as Art Deco portraiture. She continued to create striking nudes, of which is the eternal Adam and Eve (Figure 2). In 1931 Lempicka painted Adam and Eve, one of the most timeless pieces she produced during her career. Painted on wood panel as were many of her works during the Great Depression, the painting has a luminescence that is worthy of its divine subject matter. The artist’s account of the conception of the piece infers the pride Lempicka took in the finished work. I was in my studio in Paris, painting this girl, a perfection of beauty, classic. And I’m working for forty-five minutes, and then for fifteen minutes, it’s rest. So there was fifteen minutes of rest and she was walking around all nude, and she approached my big black table, a huge table on which there was fruit, beautifully arranged. And she said, “Could I take an apple?” I said, “Naturally, go ahead.” She took the apple and took it to her mouth. And I said, “Don’t move. You look like Eve. We need Adam. Now I know the painting I want to do. We need Adam.” And then I remembered that in the same street there was a policeman, a very good looking policeman. I said, “Wait a minute.” And I was in my painting blouse, all dirty from painting, my hair…doesn’t matter what. I say, “You wait here and eat your apple.” I went out of my studio into the street, and I saw the policeman often there so I knew him. And I came to him, and quick I said, “Look, I’m a painter, you know me?” He said, “Oh yes Madame, I know you and I have a reproduction of your painting. I cut it out and put it on the wall.” And I said, “Could you come sit for a painting?” He said, “When.” I said, “Tomorrow.” “I will.”… I couldn’t believe it. So the next day, I was waiting with my model, will he come or will he not come? A policeman! At that minute, he came. And I said, “You can undress and put your things here.” In my studio, and the girl was all nude. He undressed and put very cleanly
  5. 5. his things, everything corner to corner, put this, put that, and as he was an officer, he put the revolver on top of everything. And then he came and he said, “How to stand?” I said, “Take one arm and put around the girl and the other one take a position.”… And while he was there all nude, his revolver was next to me. So there he was all nude with her nude. But the revolver was next to me.9 While the subject matter of Adam and Eve is a more traditional narrative, Lempicka continues to imbue her work with a cool, detached eroticism. The two figures dominate the picture plane with their muscular frames. The figures, cut off at the knees, are locked in an embrace with Adam’s back presented to the viewer. Lempicka’s Eve clutches the apple where it seems to barely graze her shoulder. Like her teacher Lhote, Lempicka limits her palette to three main colors of gray, warm flesh tones and the red of Eve’s lips, fingernail, and nipple. The figures seem to glow in contrast to the steely, hard urban background. Lempicka’s geometric treatment of the background and the figures shows the remaining influence that Cubism had on Tamara de Lempicka’s art. The eyes are left blank, contributing to the aloofness of the two figures surrounded by their concrete Eden. Adam and Eve is an archetypal example of Lempicka’s style at the height of her career. If it was the artist nudes that struck her soul, it was her portraits which paid the bills. One of her most profitable commissions was that of Millionaire scientist, Dr. Pierre Boucard (Figure 3). In the Late twenties, Lempicka was commissioned by Dr. Boucard to paint at least four portraits of his family and retained first rights to anything painted by the artist for the subsequent two years. Dr. Boucard made his fortune through the discovery of the medicine Lacteol.10 Lempicka referenced this in his portrait by painting Dr. Boucard with a microscope and a
  6. 6. test tube of his invention. The figure is twisted, implying movement and set against a background of grays geometric shapes. As in most of Lempicka’s portraits, the canvas ends just below the knees cutting off the feet of the figure. Lempicka paints Dr. Boucard in a white trench coat rather than a doctor’s lab coat. The white of the coat serves to suggest the lab coat while imbuing the Dr. with an air of sophistication and style his new wealth permitted him. The overall effect of the piece is that of a luminous, largely monochromatic, and dynamic portrait of an intelligent, charismatic, and cosmopolitan man. Due to portraits such as that of Dr. Boucard, Tamara de Lempicka became known for her ability to illustrate the psyche of the sitter; Her patrons began to trust the artist to determine how the subject should be presented to the viewer. Tamara de Lempicka’s 1929 portrait of dancer Nana de Herrera (Figure 4) is a fascinating representation of both the Baron Kuffner’s Andalusian mistress as well as the emotions of the artist painting the portrait. Painted six years before Tamara de Lempicka married the Baron, he commissioned her to paint his mistress. Lempicka was reluctant to paint the woman and it shows in the awkward position and pained expression of the figure11. The background is characteristically linear with the artist employing yet again only three colors in the entire piece. The artist later recounted her displeasure with the experience, saying, I told Kuffner that I had heard of his friend and that she must be very beautiful if she was a dancer. He said, “I will call her and tell her top come see you.” I was very surprised. When she came to my studio, she was badly dressed, she was not elegant, she was not chic. I thought, oh, no, I don’t want to paint her. I cannot believe that’s the famous Nana de Herrera. Well, I thought, let’s try. So in my studio I said, “Sit down.”
  7. 7. She sits down. I don’t like it. And I said, “Take this off.” I don’t like it. “The hair,” I said. “How do you have your hair done?” “Oh,” she said, “Just with a flower.” “So where is the flower?” Finally I took everything off until she was nude. Then I added lace here, there. I said, “Cover up a little bit here, here, and here.” As long as she was dressed, it was impossible. So ugly. I couldn’t believe it. And I thought, “This man has very bad taste.” But when she was nude, then she was a little more interesting. Still, as long as she sat there she was nobody. And I said, “No, no, no.” And I was about to give up the portrait, not do it at all, until I said, “When you dance, how do you look?” And she did this expression. And I said, “That’s all right,” and then I painted her. 12 Accounts such as the above give us insight into Lempicka’s frenetic psyche. Her fast paced life inspired great art yet her name has become lost, excluded from textbooks on Modern art, almost forgotten if not for Alain Blondel. Blondel is responsible for resuscitating Lempicka’s career in 1969. The exposure Blondel created emboldened the Galerie du Luxembourg to stage an exhibition of forty eight pieces from the painter’s early period between 1925 and 1935.13 Despite the renewed interest in Lempicka as a painter, she remains a foot note of art history. Failed to be recognized for her contributions to modern art through the luminosity and precision of her work; she single handedly defines a movement and an era with her Deco sensibilities and cool, classical aesthetic.
  8. 8. Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4
  9. 9. 1 TdL: A Life of Deco and Decadence, p. 10 2 TdL: Deco and Decadence, p. 31 3 TdL: Deco and Decadence, p. 54 4 TdL: Deco and Decadence, p. 59-60 5 Passion by Design, p. 36 6 Passion by Design, p. 47 7 TdL: Deco and Decadence, p. 99 8 TdL: Deco and Decadence, p. 94 9 TdL: Deco and Decadence, p. 179-180 10 TdL, p. 72 11 TdL, p. 71 12 TdL: Deco and Decadence, p. 158-159 13 TdL: Deco and Decadence, p. 310-311

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