One of the current exhibits at the Pinacothèque de Paris is Tamara de Lempicka : La reine de l’Art déco (lah ren duh lar dayko), which means “the queen of Art Deco.” Lempicka, then known as Maria Górska, was born in Warsaw in 1898 to affluent parents. She lived a privileged life, attending a boarding school in Switzerland and vacationing on the French Riviera and Italy. After her parent’s divorce and her mother’s remarriage, Lempicka moved to St. Petersburg with an aunt. She set her heart on escaping as the bride of Tadeusz Lempicka, a notorious ladies’ man captivated by her substantial dowry. The two became part of the flood of refugees after the Russian revolution. They bobbed around Europe, eventually washing ashore in Paris.
When her husband was unable or unwilling to work to support them in their new life, Lempicka turned to art to support them both. This was a natural fit, since she was friends with all the artists of the day, including Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide, and friends with all the right people. Portraiture was her specialty and aristocrats of Europe queued up for the pleasure of being painted in her distinct style. Lempicka charged top dollar, supporting her family rather well.
Her most famous work is a self-portrait, Tamara in the Green Bugatti (below), described as “a real image of independent woman who asserts herself.” That sums up Lempicka to a T. She was bisexual and carried on a series of notorious affairs with other high-profile women, such as French writer Colette. Her husband divorced her in 1931. She neglected her only daughter, Kizette, palming her off on her mother when she wasn’t in boarding school. In one famous story, when Lempicka announced that she wouldn’t be home for Christmas, mama burned her designer hats one by one while Kizette watched. Merry Christmas, indeed. For all of that, Lempicka painted Kizette over and over again and even her portraits of others resembled Kizette.
Lemipicka became the lover of a Hungarian Baron (after painting the portrait of his prior mistress) and then his wife. This netted her a title and social legitimacy in the highest circles, instead of just with bohemians. She felt change in the winds and urged her husband to divest himself of property in Eastern Europe and tuck it away in Swiss banks. They passed the war years in security in the United States, where the “baroness with the brush” painted the Hollywood stars of the day.
In the post-war years, her style changed and she traded her brushes for a palette knife, but her new paintings were not well received, and she retired from public life. When the Baron died, Lempicka moved to Texas with Kizette and her husband. (Coincidentally, Kizette’s husband worked for the same company mine works for.) Lempicka wasn’t there to cuddle her grandkids but to be served. She blamed her lack of success on a failure of “breeding,” not hers, of course. She moved to Mexico to hang out with other jet set has-beens. Lempicka died in March 1980 and her ashes were scattered on the volcano Popocatepetl, which seems appropriate for this rather dramatic artist.
Eventually Lempicka’s work was back in vogue. There was a well-received retrospective and her early paintings began to sell again. A long-running play about her life was presented in major cities. Then there was a one-woman show entitled Deco Diva. (I love that title!) The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery, is a fictionalized account of Lempicka’s relationship with a model. Some high profile collectors of her work are Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, and Madonna who has used Lempicka’s images in her concerts and music videos, such as Vogue. La reine de l’Art déco is on at the Pinacothèque de Paris until September 8, 2013.
- Art Deco and its Queen (Tamara de Lempicka) at the Pinacotheque (johntalbottsparis.typepad.com)
- The real life flappers who would have been at Jay Gatsby’s parties (thestar.blogs.com)