Tamara de Lempicka: the apotheosis of style and glamour or homoerotic kitsch of the worst kind?

Born in 1898 into a well-to-do Polish family with matriarchal aristocratic ties, Tamara’s story is one of invention and reinvention. The family moved to Saint Petersburg from Warsaw in her early life, but her artistic awakening occurred during a ‘Grand Tour’ of Italy organised by her wealthy grandmother when she was 13. This would have a life-long influence on her life and work. 

Tamara de Lempicka, La Tunique rose, avril 1927, propriété de la collectionneuse Caroline Hirsch
(Tamara Art Heritage / Licensed by Museum Masters International NYC / ADAGP Paris 2013)

Newly married at 16 to a young lawyer Tadeusz Lempicki, Tamara gave birth to their daughter, Kizette soon after. The opulent lifestyle, which punctuated the couple’s early married life was soon interrupted in 1917 by the effects of the Russian Revolution, Tadeusz was jailed; he was the antithesis to what Russia was becoming. The family realised they could no longer live in Russia and fled to Denmark and on to Paris the following year.

Paris suited Tamara but it didn’t suit Tadeusz. Out of work and depressed, the family relied on selling jewellery and effects of their previous life. Adrienne, Tamara’s sister, had moved to Paris at the same time and embraced the liberated atmosphere of France, and had enrolled in an architecture school – a predominately male environment which, undeniably, would not have been an option elsewhere in the world at that time.

Pivotal moments punctuate Tamara’s life and this was no exception. Adrienne was to the point with her advice “find a career, so you don’t have to rely on your husband”. Reportedly Tamara wasted no time. Her illustrious career began, there and then!

At 18, newly enrolled into Academie de la Chaumiere, Tamara met and was undoubtedly influenced by Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard, who were devotees of the Nabis style, along with former symbolist Maurice Denis. Taking from Denis the idea of a graphic approach and pale colours, Tamara was almost certainly self-taught; but to further her education enrolled in a course at the Academie Ranson under the influence of Fauvist painters Paul Ranson and Andre Lhote. This is not to say that, while the cubist teachings gave structure to her paintings, she had moved away from her first love. Inspired by the Italian Mannerists and French Neoclassicists the most important combination of all the factors reproduced in a time and a place, at that exact moment – Art Deco.

The era of Art Deco, the 1930s, was punctuated with hedonism and the freedom of self-expression, which up until then women had not enjoyed. Tamara took full advantage of this freedom. Moving with the Parisian avant-garde in privilege circles, she was regularly seen at famed literary salons and was allegedly a frequent advocate of cocaine, hashish and alcohol. Tamara loved art and high society equally but maintained an air of mystery; and would tell anyone who would listen that she was, in fact, living on the fringes of society. By today’s standard, she clearly was living in the midst of the bright young things.

As a result, her art became much more experimental, hedonistic and sensual. Aware of this complexity and, taking advantage of this heightened awareness, Tamara painted La Tunique Rose in 1927 and La Belle Rafaela, also in 1927. Both paintings are about a sex worker, Rafela, who became Tamara’s lover and confidant, allowing Tamara to question the threat of male dominance in both her personal and professional life.

By now the early 1930s, newly divorced and self-sufficient, Tamara is taken to self-portraiture – one of her most famous works is Tamara in the Green Bugatti. A statement of self-confidence it established a signature style that will remain throughout her career. Commissioned as the cover page of a German fashion magazine, the painting depicts the artist in the driver’s seat; symbolic of financial independence and without a doubt a statement of intent.

Throughout her life, Tamara’s work changes according to the climate, and in the next stage of her life, this was no exception. 1933 brought the Great Depression to the world and with it a period of sadness and idleness. Her work suffered and finally by 1939 Tamara, now married to Baron Raoul Kuffner, a wealthy Austrian art collector, moves to America.

In the few years between her success in 1925 and her artistic demise in 1935, we see the installation of this great artist’s signature. Protagonists argue that Tamara is linked to an era, unable to break free. But why would she want to break free as it is most certainly the secret of her success but, probably and sadly the limit of her achievements? 

Moving to California and then to New York and finally to Mexico, Tamara lived long enough to see a fashionable resurgence of her work, as highlighted in the 1972 exhibition held at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris. There is some significance to the fact her career started and ended in Paris.

Tamara’s legacy lives on with iconic use of her paintings; with references to her work and style used in films, copied by other artist and embraced by the Hollywood set –  Madonna, Jack Nicholson to name but a few, who bought her work; cementing her presence and ideological values on modern culture. Recently a secondary market has seen the value of her work skyrocket. Christie’s sold the 1929 painting Portrait de Mrs.Bush for a recorded $5 million, $3 million over the catalogued estimate.

So to answer the question posed, ‘Tamara Lempicka, the apotheosis of style and glamour or homoerotic kitsch of the worst kind?’ There is no doubt the best work and the most lucrative appear to be the most kitsch. It is stylish, rebellious and sensual; all of these traits were not the province of women in early 1910 but became ostensibly, but not exclusively, the domain of Tamara and her cohorts by 1930. In Tamara’s words documented towards the end of her life, she states, “I was the first woman who did a clear painting, and that was the success of my painting,” she once asserted. “Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine. And the galleries began to put me in the best rooms, always in the centre, because my painting attracted people.” So the answer has to be style over kitsch every time!

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