Tamara de Lempicka: The Queen of Art Deco

February 7, 2010By Leaf ArbuthnotArchive

Glamour Artist of the
Roaring Twenties

Paris Update Tamara de Lempicka-La-tunique-rose

Tamara de Lempicka’s “La Tunique Rose” (Avril 1927). © Tamara Art Heritage. Licensed by Museum Masters International NYC. ADAGP, Paris 2013

The tomboy style and turbulent love life of Tamara de Lempicka made her one of the most memorable art-world figures of the early 20th century. She was also a major player in the Art Deco movement, whose brief flowering in the 1920s and ’30s coincided with the apex of her career.

The Pinacothèque de Paris, tucked into a corner of the Place de la Madeleine, is holding an exhibition covering both de Lempicka’s art and personal life, which were often very much intertwined. Born to Polish parents in 1898, she was brought up in Russia, spending many of her holidays and schooldays abroad before the 1917 Russian Revolution forced the family to flee to Paris. Declaring herself “stateless” and “international,” Lempicka spent the rest of her life traveling between Germany, Italy, the United States, Poland and finally Mexico, striking up numerous relationships with married men and women, and acquiring international renown as “the first woman artist to qualify as a glamour star.”

As well as a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, de Lempicka was a prodigious artist, as the exhibition demonstrates with a skillfully lit and comprehensive collection of her works. While some pencil sketches are displayed – including a series of flower watercolors made by de Lempicka when she was still a teenager and exhibited here for the first time – the focus is on her oil paintings. Many of these were ordered by prominent social figures of the time, among them a 1928 portrait of her patron, Baron Kuffner, whom she first met when he commissioned her to paint a portrait of his mistress, Nana DeHerrera. Characteristically, de Lempicka swiftly usurped DeHerrera’s role, taking up with the baron and eventually marrying him. Just as striking is the jarringly sensual portrait of 12-year old Arlette Boucard, daughter of Doctor Pierre Boucard, a prominent French businessman. Barelegged, Arlette, a posturing, contemptuous Lolita, reclines against a backdrop of ships bearing symbols of the Boucard pharmaceutical empire.

Perhaps the most arresting paintings, however, are those of nude women, many of whom became de Lempicka’s lovers and whose heavy-lidded eyes (reminiscent of de Lempicka’s own) radiate intensity. “The Beautiful Rafaela” is particularly strong, a painting so luminous and pristine that it seems endowed with its own light source. The skin of these nude women is so smooth and flawless that they assume a three-dimensional quality, resembling ceramic sculptures as much as paintings.

The exhibition’s layout feels confused at times. Visitors are not provided with a timeline of de Lempicka’s life until the middle of the show, and it is often difficult to grasp why certain works have been grouped together. The narration of her encounter with Italian man of letters and famed séducteur Gabriele d’Annunzio is particularly bungled, with copies of the pair’s correspondence clumsily spread about a room with little to convince visitors that their relationship should hold their interest.

In spite of this, however, the exhibition merits a visit. On the opposite side of the street, the Pinacothèque is holding another show called “Art Nouveau: The Decorative Revolution.” Intended to be seen before the de Lempicka retrospective, it is not worth visiting – visitors are dunked into a kaleidoscope of kitsch by a vulgar collection of posters and ornaments that leave little reason to wonder why Art Nouveau received such critical condemnation at the time, and why it provided so much for figures of the Art Deco movement, like Tamara de Lempicka, to rebel against.

Leaf Arbuthnot

Pinacothèque de Paris: 28, place de la Madeleine and 8, rue Vignon, 75008 Paris. Métro: Madeleine. Tel.: 01 42 68 02 01. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. (until 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday). Admission: €18 (both exhibitions), €12 (one exhibition). Through September 8, 2013. www.pinacotheque.com

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