Thursday, 29 July 2010

Tamara de Lempicka: Deco Diva

Tamara de Lempicka was a fashionable socialite and portrait painter in the 1920s and '30s - the heady days of the Bright Young Things, of flappers, prohibition, the Charleston, the Great Gatsby and the purple prose of Elinor Glyn. It saw the birth of Art Deco, with its geometric motifs and bright, bold colour, which was to become the hallmark of Tamara's painting.

Tamara was born Maria Gorska in Warsaw, Poland. She was the daughter of wealthy but divorced parents, spending her childhood at boarding school in Switzerland and holidays with family in Italy and on the French Riviera. At age 15 she went to live with a rich and aristocratic aunt in St Petersburg.

Here she met and fell for Tadeusz Lempicki, a handsome but impecunious layabout and notorious womaniser. He, keen to get his hands on her teenage body and her substantial dowry, swept her off her feet and they were married in 1916.

In 1917, during the Russian Revolution, Tadeusz was arrested by the Bolsheviks. Maria searched the prisons for him and after several weeks secured his release by means of bribes and personal favours. They ended up in Paris among other aristocratic Russian refugees, where they lived for a while from the sale of family jewels.

Maria gave birth to a daughter, Kizette, while Tadeusz (no surprise) proved unwilling or unable to find work. Maria, who had studied art, changed her name to Tamara and became a painter with a distinctive Art Deco style, with a touch of cubism. Her nudes remind me of Ingres, even though the style is so different.

She held her first major show in Milan in 1925 and after that there was no looking back. She was soon the most fashionable portrait painter among the social elite. She commanded up to $5,000 per portrait - a wagonload of shekels in today's money.

Tamara was famous for her international bohemian lifestyle - among her friends in Paris were Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide. She had many lovers of both sexes and was closely associated with lesbian and bisexual women in the arts, such as Vita Sackville-West and Colette. It finally became too much for Tadeusz to put up with when she became seriously involved with Suzy Solidor and he left her in 1927.

Suzy was a famous singer who owned a chic society nightclub called La Vie Parisienne, one of the trendiest night spots in Paris and much frequented by lesbian couples. She was a favourite model for the best-known painters of the day, but she would only pose on condition that the painting be hung in her club. By the time Tamara painted her, there were over 100 portraits of Suzy Solidor on the walls of La Vie Parisienne: among them works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Suzy Solidor spent her last years in Cagnes Sur Mer on the Riviera and left her collection of over 150 portraits to the Chateau Grimaldi, where they can be seen to this day.

Meanwhile, Tamara travelled widely in Europe and America and rarely saw her daughter, who was away at boarding school in France or England. Kizette spent her holidays with her grandmother and one year she was so angry with her mother for not returning from America for Christmas, that she burned Tamara's enormous collection of designer hats.

In 1928, the wealthy Baron Raoul Kuffner commissioned Tamara to paint his mistress. Tamara finished the portrait, then took the mistress' place in the Baron's life. The Great Depression had little effect on her frenetic lifestyle or her work: in the early 1930s she painted King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of Greece. Museums began to collect her works.

She married Baron Kuffner in 1933 and settled with him in Beverley Hills where she became "the baroness with a brush", the favorite artist of Hollywood stars. She retired from professional painting in 1962 and after the Baron's death she moved to Mexico where she died in 1980.

I have only room here to touch on a few highlights of this fascinating woman's life and work, but you can see a gallery of her paintings at and I can recommend the biography "Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence" by Laura Claridge.