Lempicka, Tamara de (1898-1980) - 1925 Self-Portrait in Green Bugatti (Private Collection)
Oil on canvas.
Tamara de Lempicka (aka Maria Gorska) was a Polish painter known for the “soft cubism” by which she epitomized the sensual side of the Art Deco movement (her renderings of stylishly sexy, bedroom-eyed women remain unmatched to this day). Tamara attended boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland before moving to St. Petersburg, Russia (where she experienced the Bolshevik Revolution)— then on to her own bohemian twenties in Paris during the Roaring 20s, where she quickly became the most fashionable portrait painter of her generation (especially among the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy who both criticized and admired her “perverse Ingrism.”)
Lempicka began to publicly exhibit her paintings in the Salon d'Automne and Salon des Tuileries in 1922. She took advantage of the growing interest in women who were entering the arts following the First World War, and indeed, she strongly believed that she stood out among them. She later wrote, "I was the first woman who did clear painting--and that was the success of my painting. Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine. And the galleries began to put me in the best rooms, always in the center, because my painting attracted people. It was neat, it was finished".
Her teachers were Maurice Denis, the Nabi painter who turned to the Italian quattrocento for inspiration in the early years of the 20th century, and André Lhote, the cubist who followed the "call to order" following the First World War and worked within the ethos of the new classicism. Lempicka learned from Denis the value of precise draftsmanship and like him acquired an affinity for the Italian primitives, whose work she studied during a student trip to Italy in 1920, and an extended stay there in 1925. She took from Lhote the principle of the "plastic metaphor," in which the shapes and volumes of the human form were based on abstract, geometric forms. Lhote had admired this idealized approach in the work of Ingres, and Lempicka was likewise drawn to this tendency, which expressed the clarity of form she sought in her work.
In the winter of 1939, Tamara and her husband started an "extended vacation" in the United States. She immediately arranged for a show of her work in New York, and settled in Beverly Hills, California, living in the former residence of Hollywood director King Vidor. She became 'the baroness with a brush' and a favorite artist of Hollywood stars. 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. 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. 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. De Lempicka determined never to show her work again, and retired from active life as a professional artist.
De Lempicka lived long enough, however, for the wheel of fashion to turn a full circle: before she died a new generation discovered her art and greeted it with enthusiasm. A 1973 retrospective drew positive responses. At the time of her death, her early Art Deco paintings were being shown and purchased once again. A stage play inspired in part by her life ("Tamara") ran first in Toronto, then for eleven years in Los Angeles at the VFW Post(1984–1995) making it the longest running play in Los Angeles.