Sunday 23 April 2017

Art deco decadence

Donal Lynch

IF THERE is one painting which gives the clearest insight into Tamara de Lempicka's life and work, it is her Self Portrait in the Green Bugatti . It was completed in 1925 when she was at the height of her powers, and depicts an imperiously glamorous Tamara at the wheel of her luxury car.

The composition is full of speed and sophistication: her sleek blonde curls are almost hidden from view by her head-hugging Hermes helmet, and her arms are clad in long leather driving gloves. The rest of the car is occupied only by her cape, billowing dramatically around her. Her sensuously full lips hint at her worldly decadence. She momentarily fixes the viewer with a languorous Dietrich-esque stare before roaring away into the night.

Though a modern audience may enjoy the stylised elegance of De Lempicka's work, during the immediate post-war era she was seen as but a colourful footnote in the history of art deco painting.

Mass postcard reproductions of her work had lodged her in the public consciousness, but critics scorned her "safe cubism" and condemned her "a pusher of empty values".

It took a legion of celebrity admirers to bring what the New York Times called "the steely-eyed goddess of an auto-era" back into vogue.

In the Eighties, the singer Madonna appropriated De Lempicka's high-camp imagery for her videos for Open Your Heart and Express Yourself, and the influential American sculptor Larry Rivers championed her work.

But it was only in 1994, when her 1931 painting Adam and Eve (then part of Barbra Streisand's private collection) sold at auction for $1.93m, that art critics began to sit up and take notice. So what prompted this Hollywood redemption of a faded art deco icon?

Her celebrity patrons were natural admirers of her depiction of the same bygone glamour with which they hoped to infuse their own work. While other artists of the era, such as Picasso, strove to convey an essentially internal vision, De Lempicka was more concerned with the glitzy excesses of the world which she inhabited: Paris between the wars glittered with hedonistic brilliance, and in De Lempicka's work, as nowhere else in art deco, we have a sharply observed chronicle of the fabrics, fashions and fads of those times.

Tamara had fled to the city of light after the Russian Revolution and was intoxicated by its opulence. As with the self-portrait, in paintings such as Madam Boucard the clothing - here a satin evening gown and mink-trimmed cape - is an important element in the sitter's allure.

There was also a sexually subversive element to De Lempicka's work, which fascinated her famous fans. In the Seventies and Eighties sexual ambiguity, which had fallen out of fashion since Dietrich, was back in vogue.

In Yentl , Streisand had been involved in the first lesbian kiss in a major Hollywood film. Madonna

'Tamara emulated the ideal forms in her paintings, styling herself as champagne-sipping art deco goddess of desire'

has, in the meantime, probably played the card too often, but her original sapphic stylings were sexy, and were influenced by the outrageous example of Tamara de Lempicka. Even the Gaultier costume designs for her 1990 stage show owed much to Tamara's pointy-breasted vision.

In Perspective, a woman with heavy and shadowy eyelids leans her head against her female companion's thigh, who in turn rests her hand on the woman's upturned knee. Both are naked. Even in the decadent Thirties, the image was scandalous (critics called her "perverse"), but it reflected De Lempicka's growing taste for sexual experimentation. Though she remained married, she embarked on countless affairs with men and women.

THE depiction of women in De Lempicka's painting was also a probable factor in her popularity with Hollywood's ruling elite. They appear like angular supermodels, swathed in mink, pearls and an air of haughty superiority. Unlike the passive coquettes that populated the canvasses of the classical masters (from whom she took much inspiration), these women were stylish dominas, in control of each scene. In real life, Tamara emulated the ideal forms in her paintings, styling herself as champagne-sipping art deco goddess of desire.

Whether De Lempicka's art is truly great is still debated. Her later work was uneven, and no amount of celebrity patronage or swollen price tags will redeem the schmaltzy sentimentality of her American portraits.

It was during her Paris years that she perfectly encapsulated the best elements of art deco with her bold and sophisticated compositions. But to paraphrase another irresponsible aesthete, her genius she saved for living. She will be remembered as not merely an important painter but a compelling figure who lived out her gauzy dream in the shadow of history.

'Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco Icon' is at the Royal Academy, London W1, until August 30. For details, phone (0044) 870 8488484

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