Thursday, 28 December 2017


Tamara de Lempicka

In the 1920's in Paris, London and New York, Polish-born Tamara de Lempicka was the most fashionable portrait painter of her generation 

 Her notoriety and fame endure and today she is collected by modern 'celebrities' - such as Madonna

Her style has been described as 'soft' Art Deco although other critics refer to the influence of French painter Maurice Denis and the earlier nudes of Ingres

Her works are cool, clean, polished yet with an underlying sensuality that partly explains their popularity with the wealthy Parisian set who posed for her and who bought her paintings

Tamara was herself something of a beauty. She added to her society allure by being bi-sexual and notoriously active sexually - she knew Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West and Colette

In Paris she was a leading figure in the Bohemian 'movement' and although married and with a young daughter, had numerous affairs

There is, however, something coy about her nude figures. Sensual, yes, but verging on elegant, soft porn - hence their appeal, no doubt.

In Ingres the languid poses are more natural, less contrived than in this (above) adaptation by Lempicka but her technical skill and seductive lines proved hugely popular with her Parisian clients and she could command high prices for her portraits of fashionable men and women

Since glamour was an essential part of her work - as indeed, it was part of her life-style - one should not perhaps look for any depth to her work

Although some claims have been made that she depicts free and independent woman within a male-dominant society, these woman are 'free' only by virtue of their wealth - and because, perhaps, they have rich and indulgent husbands

When she paints 'ordinary' women - as in this (above) strange portrait of a Mexican girl in rags, Lempicka lapses into a sentimentality that is particularly unappealing

This ghastly portrait of a weeping nun is probably one of her worst paintings. Later, as her popularity faded, she became more abstract, trying to capture (unsuccessfully) something of the originality of the Surrealists she had met in Paris

At her best - despite the 'posed' nature of her paintings and their incipient sentimentality - she was an exceptional artist 'of the moment'

Her importance lies perhaps in her remarkable ability to capture that moment in Paris between the two great wars when the rich and famous rubbed shoulders with genuinely great artists like Picasso, Miro, Braque and the Surrealists

Mike Healey

The illustrations used above are taken from this book, available from Taschen

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