Monday, January 17, 2011

Tamara de Lempicka

Auto-Portrait. I'm pretty sure this is a photo of the original, but this is a really popular painting to copy. I can see why; she's clearly a bad-ass.


Mrs. Bush. 1929. I think the knees in this are incredible. I also thought the skyscrapers in the background were kind of funny; she's like Ms. Modern Phallus.

Portrait of a Man. Notice the Michael Jackson glove.

Madame Boucard. She looks a little jowl-y, and de Lempicka has clearly idealized her a bit, to great effect. I can't help but wish I could see de Lempicka's take on this aging face without idealizing it, though; there would be fantastic planes and shapes for her to work with. I've seen a few portraits of older people, but they are in a less geometric style.

Kizette on the Balcony, 1927. Oil on canvas.

Femme dans Dentelle ("Lady in Lace).

Duchess of La Salle, 1925. This must have sent the oldsters with their Victorian morals screaming for the hills. I admire how she changed the placement of the buildings, which are usually rising like triumphant phallic symbols behind the subject. In this case they are at the Duchess's feet and a Baroque-style drapery surrounds the top of the figure. The Duchess appears in command of the past, and present, and her sexuality.

St. Moritz. It reminds me of Ingmar Bergman. Her understanding and exaggeration of eye sockets is amazing.

Grand Duke Gabriel.

Compte Vettor Marcello, 1933. (proto-"blue steel")

Irene et Sa Seur. 1925.

Telephone II. I think this is incredible. She looks so ridiculously girlish, like a grown-up Shirley Temple, and I think she might be wearing a sailor-suit of some sort to top it off. But she must be the most sinister, sexual Shirley Temple ever. The telephone, though, is what I can't get over. It reminds me of depictions of teenage girls from the fifties to the eighties or so sitting on their beds yakking into an oversized receiver and being OMG GIRLS. But the phone in this is menacing and black like a gun or masculine machine of some sort. It's more like a scene from a spy movie.


Tamara de Lempicka was born to an upper-class Polish family. She saw a man while out at the opera when she was just 15 and staked a claim to him as her future husband; three years later, they married. (I shudder to think who I might have ended up with if I chose my husband at 15.) They moved to Russia but then got stuck in the Russian Revolution and, being well-to-do, her husband was imprisoned. She apparently bribed and flirted his way out of jail, then they went to Paris.

Bohemian Paris in the 1920s sounds AWESOME. She slept with everyone: famous men, famous ladies, artists, actors, royalty. Her husband got fed up and left, but she rebounded with several very avant-garde lesbians. She painted the portrait of a Baron's mistress, then replaced her as the Baron's mistress, and eventually when the Baroness died de Lempicka and the Baron married and went to New York. There she met famous artists like De Kooning, Stieglitz, and Georgia O'Keefe, and probably had awesome sex with them all, and was a wildly successful portrait artist, till the late 1930s when her style changed and she abandoned commercial portraiture.

Her studio and professional conduct were apparently notable as well. People ask me about my studio, and I have to explain that it's more like a work-space, a stall in a warehouse and not a show-room of any sort. De Lempicka, on the other hand, was a glamorous celebrity who kept a large studio in the city that was part stylish lounge, part work-space. She painted in gorgeous clothes with a smock over them and most of her subjects were socialites and royalty.

I really admire her attitude as a portrait artist. Her subjects are in charge of the canvas, completely inhabiting every inch of space, even when they assume a traditional romanticized female "fainting limp-necked waif" posture. Someday I hope to keep a studio like that and command the type of presence she commanded in it. I'm also happy to see her work is getting more and more exposure. I think she's on her way to being an Andy Wyeth or M. C. Escher type of figure: enjoying wide popularity outside of the art world, and respect from within it. She wasn't very innovative, after all; this has watered-down elements of Fernand Leger's cubist style ("tube-ism;" I always hated his work) as well as watered-down elements of the hardcore cubists. She takes some color and atmosphere from deChirico, as well as his references to Classical Greek imagery, but doesn't push the envelope of subject-matter like the Surrealists. And then she borrows from the German New Objectivists, but her work isn't a deeply unsettling comment on post-war society. I think the attitude toward society generated by her paintings is most like an energetic, optimistic WPA mural. But every artist borrows; what she ends up with seems to work.


Edited to add: Wow, this appears to be a continuously popular post! so, all of you de Lempicka fans will probably enjoy this as much as I did.

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