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Art Deco Icon: Tamara de Lempicka
Royal Academy, London


Nicky Charlish

Capturing on canvas the spirit of two decades with cool, disconcerting beauty should make the reputation of any artist. But it hasn't worked that way for Tamara de Lempicka - until recently. For decades, the art establishment has marginalised her. But more of that in a moment. The Royal Academy is hosting the major exhibition of her work in this country, so we have a chance to see what her work is all about - and why its creator has generated so much controversy.

Born Tamara Gorska in 1898 to wealthy parents in Russian Poland, by 1919 she'd fled to Paris from revolutionary Russia along with her lawyer husband Count Tadeusz Lempicki. He was unwilling to work, so De Limpicka decided to take up painting to make money: throughout her life, she would insist that she became an artist through economic necessity. But this wasn't strictly true; since a teenage holiday in Italy - which had given her an appreciation of late Renaissance and Mannerist ideas of classical beauty - she'd felt a vocation to be a painter. She chose her teachers well: from Maurice Denis she learnt the use of simple lines and a smooth finish; from André Lhote, the neoclassical modification of cubism, and Ingres' use of clear, glowing colours, and imperious yet powerful interpretation of the female form and execution of the society portrait.

On the surface, De Lempicka's works look glacial - after all, she is depicting the Jazz Age, the brilliant, brittle society of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Arlen's The Green Hat, and Waugh's Vile Bodies. But it's their very appearance - a riot of colour combined with the sharpness of Cubism - which makes them seem to explode from their frames and grab our attention. And it's that particular style which makes us focus on their depth, their humanity.

What's especially outstanding? 'The Open Book' of circa 1924, is eye-catching because its conventional subject matter - an open book lying on top of a closed one - shows that she could master the basics of painting, demonstrating her technical expertise, with light and darkness visible on the pages with spot-on accuracy. Her 'Portrait of Prince Eristoff' of 1925 shows the melancholy prince reflective against the backdrop of a Byzantine cityscape - a place of sadness? A place to which he cannot return? Meanwhile, undiminished hauteur - with, maybe, a slight, fatal softness - flits across the features of the subject in 'Portrait of his Imperial Highness Grand Duke Gabriel' of circa 1926. The variable nature of city life appears in two pictures. 'Portrait of Pierre de Montaut' of 1931 shows the efficiency-exuding businessman - with skyscrapers in the background - seeming to epitomise urban hardness. Yet the same cityscape is humanised by the nude in the foreground of 'Nude with Buildings' of 1930. There's little gay about her 'Portrait of André Gide,' of circa 1925, in which the writer squints with apparent cold disgust and for whom the unkind term 'killer fruit' seems apt.

A bisexual woman, De Lempicka's work reflects a glorification of the female form and vignettes of female life. Her powerful, curvy, slab-faced 'Seated Nude' of circa 1923 sets the tone for her depiction of women. Curves and shadows are blended in 'La Belle Rafaëla in Green' of circa 1927 to show her reclining, one-time lover. The booted, square-shouldered subject of 'Portrait of the Duchess de La Salle' of 1925 shows a no-nonsense posture for another of De Lempicka's lovers, with a tough come-hither look that brooks no dissent. 'The Telephone II' of 1930 shows a woman using a telephone, lynx-eyed to ensure that she isn't detected as she - presumably - arranges an assignation.

But one very different female subject shows a radically different side of her personality. A long-standing creative crisis in the mid-Thirties led her to search for new subjects - ordinary people and religious themes - and she considered entering a Tuscan convent. Her monastic aspirations came to nothing, but it did result in her work 'The Mother Superior' of 1935. Here, the saddened nun bends her head, as if listening to a succession of deeply-disturbing confidences, the corners of her mouth curving-down with disgust, her eyes red with dripping tears.

This body of work should have given De Lempicka a respectable estimation by the art establishment. It didn't. Modernism in all its forms was on the march, presenting itself as both artistically - and politically - correct. It seized the high moral ground inferring that, if you favoured traditional art, you wanted to grind the faces of the poor into the ground. But she used modern forms playfully, and her subject-matter - the nouveaux riches, aristocrats, exiled royalty - hardly fitted the Modernist agenda. She made no polite attempt to hide her desire for social recognition - and money. Also, her celebration of women - including lesbians - may not have exactly commended her to a largely male-dominated art establishment.

After moving to America in 1939 with her new (rich) husband Baron Kuffner, she experimented desultorily with abstract art. She could continue to produce striking work. The exhibition features her 'Escape' of circa 1940 where a woman, clutching a child in a deserted street overshadowed by grey skies, almost melts with fear and misery, capturing with stark simplicity the terror and despair that engulfed Western Europe that year with Hitler's onslaught. This picture should alone have confounded the idea that her work was shallow. It was not to be. Her pre-war career petered-out. Apart from a 1973 exhibition in Luxembourg, only a few small show of her work were staged and she remained sidelined until her death in 1980.

But De Lempicka's exile seems over. There is wide disenchantment with Modernism. People realise that it's just another style, and an unattractive one at that. Her work combines accessibility with deeper meaning. Feminism's emphasis on unearthing sidelined women and their history has played its part, too, in getting De Lempicka into the limelight. The liberation of gay women from dungaree drag has made her the prophetic, in-house painter of lipstick lesbianism.

If the success of the recent Art Deco exhibition at the V&A is anything to go by, this show has the makings of a blockbuster with the added satisfaction of seeing the old self-appointed art establishment experts reaping the fruit of their folly and getting their comeuppance. Most importantly, it will be the vindication of an unjustly-neglected artist who combined beauty with social commentary. But don't take my word for it - go and see for yourself. If there's a long queue, the wait will be worth it.


Till 30 August 2004
Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London

 

 
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