Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Tamara de Lempicka.

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.
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 quickly, influenced by what André Lhote sometimes referred to as "soft cubism" and by the "synthetic cubism" of Maurice 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.

Lempicka's distinctive and bold artistic style developed quickly, influenced by what André Lhote sometimes referred to as "soft cubism" and by the "synthetic cubism" of Maurice 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.

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.

Obsessed with her work and her social life, Lempicka neglected more than her husband; she 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 was neglected, but also immortalized. 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' 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 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.

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. The artistry and craftsmanship of her glory days were unrecoverable. 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.

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.

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.

The good old naughty days
In life Tamara de Lempicka was a Left Bank bisexual with an appetite for bohemian living. Her work, though, portrays the dubious glamour and discipline of fascism
Fiona MacCarthy

If there is a single image that encapsulates art deco, it is Tamara de Lempicka's self-portrait Tamara in the Green Bugatti. It was commissioned for the cover of the German magazine Die Dame, which defined her as "a symbol of women's liberation". The tight, post-cubist composition of the painting; the muted, sophisticated colour; the sense of speed and glamour; her blonde curl edging out of the head-hugging Hermès helmet; her long leather driving gauntlets; her lubricious red lips. Clearly this is a woman who means business - even to the extent of mowing down a few pedestrians.

Her time was the 1920s: a period of transition, an era in which functionalism merged with fantasy and formal social structures lurched into the frenetic. In essence, De Lempicka was a classicist, having admired Renaissance painting since her adolescent travels in Italy. But she astutely combined traditional portraiture with advertising techniques, photographic lighting, vistas of the tower architecture of great cities.

Her milieu was the glittery and scintillating Paris of the years between the wars, a place of high style and lascivious behaviour. With a callous authenticity, De Lempicka depicted the shifting morals of a Paris where nothing was precisely what it seemed. She lived and worked on the bisexual fringes of a society where there were no rules beyond the demands of style and entertainment. She was the great go-getter, a believer in exploiting one's resources to the ultimate. Her iconic green Bugatti wasn't green in reality but yellow. Nor was it even a Bugatti but a Renault. "There are no miracles," she stated with her icy realism. "There is only what you make."

Who was she? De Lempicka shuffled the facts of her biography much as she meddled with her birth date. Tamara Gurnick-Gorzka was born in Moscow - or could it have been Warsaw? - in 1898 or so, to a wealthy Polish mother and a cosmopolitan Russian father. Her background of social confidence and ease was to prove an advantage to a portraitist: she confronted her sitters on equal terms. In St Petersberg, she met Tadeusz Lempicki, a tall, saturnine attorney of noble family and, at the age of 14, announced her love for him. They were married just before the Russian revolution. Lempicki was arrested by the Bolsheviks but his wife secured his release.

Like other exiled White Russians, they arrived in Paris with no money, having abandoned their possessions. They now had a child, Kizette. Tadeusz Lempicki remained unemployed and moody. Tamara's portrait of her husband shows the queasy self-importance of the glamour boy displaced. These were years of deprivation, in which Tamara herself became determined to succeed as a professional artist. "My goal," she later wrote, "was never to copy, to create a new style, bright, luminous colours and to scent out elegance in my models." She became a prime interpreter of modernity.

De Lempicka's painting is a thing of gloss and gesture. In her early days in Paris, she enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and absorbed the work of the old masters, especially admiring Bronzino. In some ways, De Lempicka is a mannerist reborn. She went on to study in the studio of the symbolist Maurice Denis, a highly decorative painter who instilled the sense of discipline and structure in her work.

Her most influential mentor was the painter and critic André Lhote, perpetrator of a less strident, gentler-coloured form of cubism, a style easily acceptable to the bourgeoisie. In her early Paris paintings, De Lempicka employed this "synthetic cubist" method, an accumulation of small geometric planes used to startlingly voluptuous effect in images of women reclining, women bathing, women embracing, laconically stroking one another's thighs. The blatant display of the naked female body was a feature of art deco - this was, after all, the era of Josephine Baker shaking her banana skins. De Lempicka's pair of pointing-breasted giantesses, The Friends, disport themselves in front of a futuristic stage set of skyscrapers, a 1920s fantasy of big city sex.

But her images of female nudity also recalled the French neo-classical tradition. Her group painting Women Bathing is the Left Bank lesbian version of Ingres's luscious harem composition The Turkish Bath. The critics' divination of "perverse Ingrism" in De Lempicka's paintings did her burgeoning popularity no harm. In real life, she acted up to it, displaying her own tall, slender, curvy body outstretched on a divan, wearing a titillating white satin robe with marabou feather adornments. Tamara played her own art deco goddess of desire.

She was a workaholic, permitting interruptions in her nine-hour painting sessions only for such necessities as champagne, a massage and a bath. She sold herself shrewdly and by 1923 was beginning to exhibit in small galleries in Paris. The next year, her work was shown at the Salon des Femmes Artistes Modernes in Paris, and in 1925 she had her first solo exhibition in Milan.

Her social life advanced in parallel, displaying the full force of Tamara's "killer instinct" (her daughter's description). There was something predatory in the way she acquired so many lovers of both sexes, many of whom were also her models and her patrons. The model for her painting Beautiful Rafaela was picked up in the street and seduced with aplomb. The portrait throbs with an intense erotic energy. The liaison continued for a year.

Tamara gave up on Tadeusz and, brandishing diamond bracelets from wrist to shoulder, joined the European avant-garde celebrities: Marinetti, Jean Cocteau, Gabriel d'Annunzio. She visited d'Annunzio at his notorious villa Il Vittoriale in Gardone where, unusually, she resisted his advances and, equally unusually, failed to paint his portrait - a singular loss to the De Lempicka oeuvre. She was a spectacular attender of Natalie Barney's afternoons "for women only" and claimed to have snorted cocaine with André Gide.

Thanks to her contacts in the world of the Paris couturiers, De Lempicka always looked fabulous. Photographed in the right light, she could be Greta Garbo's sister. She made her entrance at smart parties in magnificent garments donated by Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.

In the late 1920s, De Lempicka acquired her most important patrons, Doctor Pierre Boucard and his wife. Boucard was a medical scientist, inventor of Lacteol, a cure for indigestion. He had become an avid modernist and already owned several De Lempicka nudes, including her most flamboyant lesbian painting, Myrto, Two Women on a Couch. He now offered her a two-year contract to paint portraits of himself, his wife and daughter, also asking for an option on any other paintings she produced.

This sudden financial stability allowed her to buy a three-storey house and studio on Rue Mechain on the Left Bank. She commissioned its refurbishment by Robert Mallet-Stevens, the most brilliant French modernist designer of the time. With its svelte grey interior, chrome fittings and American cocktail bar it gave De Lempicka the setting of ultimate urban smartness to which she had long aspired.

A contemporary architectural photograph shows the new studio in all its pristine glory. There in the centre on its easel is the portrait of Madame Boucard, completed in 1931, a sophisticated and accomplished painting that tells us as much about De Lempicka as it does about the sitter. De Lempicka is the connoisseur of textiles, jewels, hairstyles, the cut of the garment, the swathe of the mink stole: no other painter of the period gives us so precise a reading of its material values. Madame Boucard is posed like a Renaissance courtesan, her right nipple erect beneath the oyster satin bodice. She's a figure of power, with something of the brutal allure of Wallis Simpson. What she tells us is that every sex act has its price.

Size mattered in the Europe of that time. De Lempicka's male portraits show gigantic caddishness. Spiv-shouldered Doctor Boucard, with his test tube and his microscope, looks more the slick sharp man about town than man of healing. Count Fürstenberg Herdringen is a glass-eyed monster in a Frenchman's navy beret. Most frightening of all is the colossal portrait of the Grand Duke Gabriel Constantinovich, with his gold-braided uniform and empty, sneering face.

De Lempicka was an artist of the Fascist superworld: her portraits were allied to the "call to order" movement, the return to monumental realism in European art. Her art exudes the dark and dubious glamour of authoritarian discipline. When she paints the Duchesse de la Salle, the Duchess is in jackboots, one hand thrust in her pocket in an attitude of menace. It is a tremendous portrait, painted with the sheer theatrical enjoyment, the unerring sense of decor, of De Lempicka's best work.

In 1933 she remarried. Baron Raoul Kuffner was the owner of vast estates donated to his family of stockbreeders and brewers by Emperor Franz-Josef for supplying the Hapsburg court. De Lempicka had already portrayed her future husband as a dandy desperado, gazing out inscrutably from behind hooded lids. She had also painted - and in doing so disposed of - his previous mistress, the Andalusian dancer Nana de Herrera, selecting her as model for the most overtly decadent of the "damned women" in the notorious Group of Four Nudes .

De Lempicka was never a consistent painter. As with many ruthless people, her swagger could give way to a strain of awful mawkishness: cubism and kitsch. Once she became Baroness Kuffner, Tamara lost direction. The urge for fame, and indeed subsistence, left her. The age of art deco, in which she thrived, was over. Her sentimental studies of old men with guitars and lachrymose mother superiors are a dreadful anti-climax after the bitchy candour of her portrait of lesbian nightclub owner Suzy Solidor.

The political terrors of Europe in the 1930s were impinging: she and the baron, on holiday in Austria, were appalled to have their breakfast on the hotel verandah interrupted by a singing parade of Hitler Youth. In 1939, urged by Tamara, who was partly Jewish, Kuffner sold his estates in Hungary and they moved to the US. In New York, she tried abstract expressionism unsuccessfully, and was reduced to the role of a chic curiosity, "the painting baroness".

De Lempicka died in 1980 in Mexico, having directed that her ashes be scattered over the crater of volcanic Mount Popocatepetl. The woman who in her lifetime was described as "a little hot potato" came to a suitably inflammatory end. Her expensively dressed rogues gallery of portraits, though hardly great art, add up to a unique and alarming social document, recording the seductive surface textures of a European society en route to self-destruct.

October 24, 1999
Glitter Art
The life of a Deco painter who was as sybaritic as her subjects.

Jean Cocteau once said of the painter Tamara de Lempicka that she loved ''art and high society in equal measure.'' If her pursuit of society resulted in opened doors and enviable pleasures, two-timing the art world would also prove to be the bane of her existence. ''To artists she appeared to be an upper-class dilettante, and to the nervous haute bourgeoisie she seemed arrogant and depraved,'' Laura Claridge writes in ''Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence.''

A Polish-Russian aristocrat, Lempicka barely escaped the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1918, she landed in a drab little hotel room in Paris with her unemployed husband and a small child. Within a few years, marshaling her innate talent, her wit and Greta Garbo looks, she became the most talked about Art Deco painter of her time. To this day, her erotic portraits of stylish sybarites are enduring testaments to the novelty-loving materialism and decadence of the glittering 1920's.

There was nothing ordinary about Lempicka; even her name clings to the tongue like an exotic marmalade. Flamboyant (paradoxically remaining true to herself while being a slave to fashion) and imperious, she pinned down her husbands like butterflies in a case, gave lavish parties for hundreds and indulged in every vice that came her way. In the Paris salon of the poet Natalie Barney, she sniffed cocaine and drank sloe gin fizzes laced with hashish among the likes of Andre Gide. On the banks of the Seine, she picked up sailors and female prostitutes. After her nocturnal debauches, she painted until dawn. Her life style (and her ''affair'' with the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio) sent her first husband, Tadeusz Lempicki, packing into the arms of a plump heiress.

Lempicka's second marriage was to the Hungarian Jewish Baron Raoul Kuffner, which necessitated a second flight, this time from Hitler's Europe to the United States. In New York and Hollywood (where she was known as ''the Baroness with a paintbrush'') she saw her career rise and plummet -- only to have her work rediscovered in the 1970's and 80's (she died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1980) and collected by celebrities like Madonna and Jack Nicholson.

It is Claridge's ambition that Lempicka, whom she calls ''one of the 20th century's most important and iconoclastic artists,'' be returned to her rightful place in the limelight. But her rush to enshrine Lempicka in the pantheon of modern art's greatest masters sometimes results in breathy pronouncements and lapses of judgment that disrupt an otherwise lucid and interesting account of Lempicka's life and art.
In uncovering Lempicka's life, Claridge, the author of ''Romantic Potency: The Paradox of Desire,'' has surmounted a serious handicap. There were no diaries and few letters and documents to consult; most previous accounts of Lempicka's life have been based on her deliberate lies and improvised anecdotes. Claridge establishes that Tamara Gurwik-Gorska was born around 1895 in Moscow -- not, as she insisted, in 1898 (or later) in Warsaw. Her mother, Malvina Dekler, came from wealthy Polish bankers; her father, Boris Gurwik-Gorski, was a successful Russian Jewish merchant. He disappeared early in Lempicka's childhood, and she fairly well erased him and her Jewish heritage from her memory. She grew up in the hierarchical, class-conscious atmosphere of the haute bourgeoisie during la belle époque. She attended finishing school, visited Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Paris, and made annual tours of Italy, where she first fell in love with the Renaissance masters that were to become an important influence on her work.

By 1910, Lempicka was spending most of her time at her wealthy aunt's opulent residence in St. Petersburg. It was there that she acquired her taste for luxury, and, at a costume ball, she set her sights on her future husband, a handsome Polish lawyer named Tadeusz Junosza-Lempicki. The couple's idyllic, spoiled existence -- traipsing from avant-garde cafe gatherings to society teas -- was cut short by the Russian Revolution. The Cheka arrested Tadeusz, and Lempicka was left to her own devices to free her husband and escape to Paris. ''Paradoxically,'' Claridge writes, Lempicka the painter ''would not have existed without the Russian Revolution. Her expulsion from a predestined life of privilege transformed her into a modern woman.''

In Paris, Lempicka, who had early on shown talent as an artist, took up painting to support her family. To a sleek Cubist style she added the disciplined finish and melancholy light of Renaissance painting. She painted beautiful if somewhat dim-looking women -- half mannequins, half animals, with blood red lips and translucent eyes staring Belliniesquely at heaven, awaiting, it seems, not a message from God but an elixir to slake their restless ennui.

By the mid-20's, Lempicka's portraits of aristocrats and prostitutes were being exhibited in the Paris salons. Her ''Autoportrait: Or, Woman in the Green Bugatti'' (1929) was so often reproduced it became a sort of advertisement for the new modern woman -- independent, stylish and sexually liberated. Lempicka's success allowed her to mingle with avant-gardists like Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali and Filippo Marinetti, but she remained disengaged from the progressive, leftist artistic climate of her time. Aloof and wild, she was fundamentally anti-intellectual. At home, too, she remained at sea. An absent wife, she used her artistic life to excuse her infidelities. A rigid perfectionist, she abused her daughter, Kizette. After her first marriage fell apart she suffered from severe bouts of depression that were to plague her for the rest of her life.

By the mid-1930's the neo-classical and decadent elements of Lempicka's painting made her suspect to both the left-wing critics and the fascists. Lempicka's place in the art world would not be resolved by her move to the United States in 1939. With her wealthy second husband's money she continued her frenetic socializing, while her representational painting quickly became an anachronism, overshadowed by Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. In the 1960's she largely gave up her career and came to resemble a demanding, eccentric socialite more than an influential painter.

Claridge argues that Lempicka has been denied her rightful place in modern art history because she was a woman whose background was politically incorrect, and suggests a re-examination of Modernism is in order. She may not be up to that task, but she has contributed a well-deserved and sympathetic account of Lempicka's life.

Glyn Vincent is writing a biography of the artist Ralph Albert Blakelock.

By John Gross

PASSION BY DESIGN: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka. By Baroness Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall as told to Charles Phillips. Illustrated. 191 pages. Abbeville Press.

TAMARA DE LEMPICKA -you may not recognize her name, but there is a fair chance that you have seen her face. It gazes out from one of her most frequently reproduced paintings, the ''Auto-Portrait'' of 1925, also known as ''Tamara in the Green Bugatti.'' The young blond driver sits at the wheel of her car, with full red lips and sensuous eyes, gloved and helmeted like an aviator (though the helmet looks curiously metallic) -the perfect image of modernity, 1925 vintage, and the embodied spirit of Art Deco.

During the 1920's and 30's, while she was living in Paris, Tamara de Lempicka established herself as the quintessential Art Deco painter. No one who has seen them could readily forget the stylized portraits and nudes that she painted at that time, with their dramatic shadows and frozen drapery, their sub-Cubist backgrounds of planes and angles and skyscrapers. They have a hard, chrome and enamel feel to them, and yet they contrive to be full of individual character, too.

By the time she left for America, shortly before World War II, Lempicka's reputation was in decline. The dealers lost interest in her, and for many years her work, when it attracted attention at all, looked hopelessly dated.
Then, in the late 1960's, she began to share in the revived fortunes of Art Deco in general, and by the end of the 70's she had once more come into her own. A retrospective exhibition was held in Paris in 1972; a deluxe book about her, edited by Franco Maria Ricci, was published in 1977; since then the prices paid for her paintings have risen sharply, and there has even been a play about her (''Tamara,'' which was first produced in Hollywood in 1984 and will be coming to New York in the fall).

In spite of this she has remained an elusive, somewhat mysterious figure, and there was certainly room for a more extended study of her life than the two or three sketches that are all that has been available up until now. ''Passion by Design'' sets out to fill the gap; it also offers a handsome selection of the paintings (most of them reproduced in color) and photographs taken from Lempicka's own albums.

The text has an unusual history. After Lempicka died in 1980 her daughter, the Baroness Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall, began to collect her letters and papers and start making notes of her own. Her relationship with her mother had been a difficult one; she was anxious to set down the story in a way that would, in the words of Charles Phillips, ''banish the ghost,'' and at the same time do Lempicka justice - to produce a book without any trace of ''Mommie Dearest,'' as it were.

In 1986 she met Mr. Phillips, and they agreed to collaborate. Mr. Phillips, as he explains, took down the Baroness's story, edited it and recast it in the third person; he has also supplemented it with his own research and material drawn from interviews with Lempicka's friends and acquaintances.

There is no reason in principle why such a method shouldn't have worked, but in practice the results are not very satisfactory. For much of its length, the book provides no more than a trickle of information, bulked out with feeble anecdotes and historical ''background'' of the most banal variety. The Jazz Age is summed up as ''the decade between the last machine gun burst in the trenches on the Marne and the first splat of bone and blood on the sidewalks of Wall Street''; the 1930's are ushered in with the news that ''before long a strange little man who looked remarkably like Charlie Chaplin would play on the turmoil of worldwide depression to get himself elected ruler of Germany.''

Still, let us be thankful for those hard facts about Lempicka that we are given - about her years in Paris in particular. She arrived there with her husband in 1918, both of them refugees from the Russian Revolution (Tamara herself was Polish); her life in exile felt empty, and she turned to painting at the suggestion of her sister, enrolling as a student with the painters Maurice Denis and Andre Lhote.

Her subsequent success brought her into contact with many leading artists and writers of the time (she painted a striking portrait of Andre Gide, for example), but she also kept one foot firmly in the world of smart society. The list of the friends she painted reads like a random dip into the Almanach de Gotha - the Marquis d'Afflitto, the Duchesse de la Salle, Count Furstenburg-Hendringen, the Grand Duke Gabriel Constantinovich - though a glance at their portraits will confirm that she was no mere flatterer.

One of the most oddly contorted and powerful of her portraits was of a Spanish dancer, Nana de Herrera. It was commissioned by Nana de Herrera's lover, a wealthy Hungarian called Baron Kuffner, and the authors describe it as ''something of an assassination''; shortly after it was finished Lempicka replaced the dancer as Kuffner's mistress. He was only one of her many conquests, but the most enduring of them: it was as Baroness Kuffner (they had been married in 1933) that she sailed with him to America in 1939.

The American years were spent in Hollywood, in New York and then, after Kuffner's death in 1962, in Houston. Apart from Hollywood, where Lempicka made a certain splash, they sound like a prolonged anticlimax, and by the time she moved to Mexico, in 1978, she had plainly become an impossible mother, and a fairly impossible person. But she did achieve one last grand gesture, asking for her ashes to be scattered from the air over the volcano Popocatepetl. Her request was honored.

A book with its share of colorful moments, then; but on the whole it is the pictures that are its justification. And not all of them, either - a few are pure kitsch; but the best of them have an electrifying impact.

No comments: