Art Deco and decadence – a lovely, stylish combination. And when you throw in a spot of debauchery, it comes close to perfection.
Back in July, during a ramble around the Pompidou in Paris, we came across works by Tamara de Lempicka in the flesh (so to speak) for the first time.
While the style of her portraits is familiar – how many of them have been used as set decorations for film and TV because they instantly scream out the period? – the selection on view also included Still Life With Arums and Mirror from 1938, providing a further insight.
A few weeks later, I spotted a biography of the artist by Laura Claridge, which promised to be not just about the woman who put the art in Art Deco, but also the aforementioned debauchery, which winning combination marked it out as potentially excellent holiday reading.
It is indeed a very interesting read about an intriguing character who, a tad like Garbo – who she adored and was acquainted with – managed to keep the details of her personal life largely hidden, leaving Claridge with the mammoth task of digging around for evidence.
The nature of de Lempicka’s life also means that there’s a good deal of reliance on newspaper society reports.
Even the year of her birth was difficult to uncover, but is now believed to be 1898. Although a Pole, she lived for some time in her early life in St Petersburg and was there, married to Tadeusz Łempicki and living it up among the upper echelons of that society, utterly unaware of the suffering of millions, when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917.
Fleeing to Paris, de Lempicka decided that she could make a living as an artist and, by 1925, had her first major solo show in Milan.
Tutored by André Lhote, she developed what has been described as ‘soft cubism’, which she combined with vivid colour (although her portraits work within a deliberately limited palette), an intriguing framing of her subjects and a textural finish that was straight out of her beloved Italian Quattrocento.
|Portrait of the Marquis d'Afflito (1925)|
It was a style that perfectly suited the Jazz Age and has come to exemplify it, combining both a measured coolness and a very direct sexuality.
Indeed, she made full use of the sort of direct gaze that we see in Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia (both 1863) and if, by de Lempicka’s time, it was not as likely to cause offense, it still acts as a challenge to the viewer.
It’s present perhaps most famously in Auto-Portrait (1925) – a self-portrait in a Bugatti – which has become an icon of Deco.
But even when the gaze is elsewhere, that hardly changes the sexual nature of many of the pictures, such as in Andromeda (1929), which makes a rather nod toward bondage.
And when, as in The Model (1925), the central figure is actually hiding her face, there can still be no doubting the sexual nature of the picture.
The likes of Perspective (1923) and Group of Four Nudes (1925) are unambiguously sexual in nature, from the facial expressions to the position of the hand on thigh in the former.
But de Lempicka was not just a portraitist – society or otherwise – or a painter of nudes, as her still lives and later, her surrealist and abstract works, show.
|Group of Four Nudes (1925)|
She went out of fashion for a number of reasons. Partly, because in the post-war world, living in the US, her style didn’t suit the new art climate of abstraction, and in part too, because her position as a socialite was out of touch with the mood.
The latter was absolutely her own fault. Late in her life, Claridge quotes her as regretting all the socialising, which reduced the time she spent painting.
When she was covered in the papers later in her life, it was more for what she served at her parties than for what she served up on canvas, while even decades after leaving for the States, she was almost blanked in Paris by women who remembered the tales of her debauchery.
And a linking in the popular mind of her style of paintings with fascism, however unfairly, didn’t help either.
Some of the post-Jazz Age works – including a famous portrait of a crying Mother Superior (1935) – lapse into a mawkish sentimentality, although La Fuite (1939), featuring a distraught mother with child as storm clouds gather, at least shows not only that she was aware of the coming war but of the impending human tragedy that it would mean.
But the Deco works are superb, and the still lives are excellent too.
Claridge does well with the limited factual information about de Lempicka’s life, in more than one case avoiding the temptation to simply accept established stories in favour of digging deeper.
But there are also times when she makes generalised statements that are simply opinions.
|Still Life With a Chair (1942)|
For instance, Claridge rightly points out that female artists in the Paris of the early 20th century were regarded highly by and accepted within the art circles of the day – and achieved wider critical success too.
But in terms of that acceptance, she suggests that female artists were expected to engage in the Bohemian life of that community in the city at that time.
Now it might sound rather minor, but the idea – however slight a suggestion it is – that female artists in general had their sexual behavior guided by a desire to be accepted by men rather than by their own desires and the opportunity to enjoy sexual adventures in a much more liberated atmosphere than elsewhere in the society of the day, falls into the trap of attempting to see everything through a certain type of feminist lens.
Some may have felt obliged; others may not.
In the case of de Lempicka – and that is who this book is about – there is no doubt that, sexually, she was entirely her own woman.
She was also undoubtedly a difficult personality – and an absolute bitch to her daughter, Kizette – but then how many great artists or geniuses are ‘normal’?
Claridge’s book is an engaging, informative read. My major complaint is that, although the pages are liberally peppered with black and white illustrations of de Lempicka and her family, there is only a very small section of colour plates, giving only a very small idea of her actual work.
It’s almost as though the author and publishers have fallen into the same kind of reporting of their subject as Claridge notes in the text. And with a lack of titles for whole stages of her work, it’s not easy to track down images online.
So I recommended reading this alongside the Taschen large format De Lempicka, by Gilles Néret, since the pre-Claridge text is accompanied by a mass of beautifully reproduced pictures.