Style guru

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Annie Harris discusses the life and work of an Art Deco icon

"Portrait of Ira P" shows Ira Perrot, a friend and lover of artist Tamara de Lempicka (pronounced "de-Lem-pits-ka"). De Lempicka herself said:"My goal was never to copy, but to create a new style, bright, luminous colours and to scent out elegance in my models." "To scent out elegance" exactly describes the way the artist excludes what you could call "scruffy" detail, leaving the painting with three or four elegant essentials, which then have plenty of room to establish themselves. In this portrait, these elements swirl and bunch, competing for attention on the picture surface: the face, the body, the red scarf and the lilies. Tamara went on to pronounce: "A painting must be clear and clean. I was the first woman to paint clearly and cleanly - and that was the reason for my success."

Her own life was one of her most exotic creations. Born Tamara Gorska in Moscow in about 1898 to a Polish mother and wealthy Russian father; her luxurious Moscow and St Petersburg upbringing paid no heed to the events brewing in Russia, which would culminate in the Revolution of 1917. As an adolescent, she visited Italy with her grandmother, where she fell in love with the clarity of line and volume of Renaissance painting. Later, when staying with her aunt Stefa in St Petersburg, she was introduced to Russian forms of Cubism at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.

It was in St Petersburg that she also attracted the attention of her future husband, Tadeusz Lempicki (Lempicka is the feminine form), when she arrived at a party accompanied by a pair of geese. Tamara and Tadeusz were married in 1916, the glamour and extravagance of the wedding contrasting grossly with the poverty and hunger of the Russian masses at this time. During the Revolution, Tadeusz was arrested. The story goes that it was with sexual favours that Tamara rescued him so that they could flee together to France.

In Paris, their refugee status and sudden loss of income made Tadeusz too depressed to work, and since the couple now had a daughter, Kizette, Tamara's sister suggested that Tamara become an artist to support the family.

So an artistic career was born, partly of financial necessity. Tamara's tutors were the painter Maurice Denis (originally one of the Nabis group, with artists like Bonnard and Vuillard), and an artist called Andre Lhote.

Lhote was viewed scornfully by the original Cubists as a mere populariser of Cubism; when Tamara came under his influence, she was similarly dismissed. But Tamara remembered her trips to the Italian museums and Lhote encouraged her to combine her love of Classicism with Cubism to create the eclectic and decorative style which she and her customers wanted.

Following Lhote's advice, De Lempicka chose two or three clear and clean colours and set them against a neutral foil of grey. She then placed these clear colours and shapes in powerful inter-relationships: the curve of a body against the strict geometrical background of skyscrapers, for example.

In her best paintings the intensity of the rhythms and relationships of shape and line create an charismatic and erotic depiction of the person.

She fabricates glamour. When viewing these luxurious paintings, writer and painter Adrian Stokes says: "For a moment, luxury satisfies greed and provides riches that separate us from loneliness."

Perhaps Tamara's luxurious life and work shored her up against just such a fear of loneliness. Notice the artificiality of individual parts of the face, giving an impression of luxury: the eyes shine like moonstones, the lips are the reddest red, the hair curls like precious metal. Tamara transforms physical features into cultural emblems of power and sexuality.

The blood-red scarf billows around the sitter, ready to tangle and tighten, and even the body resembles the metallic figure on the front of a Rolls-Royce.

Above the surge of erotic attributes the face stares out with a strangely trapped and melancholic expression as if from a kind of glamour-prison. The sense of the artist ordering her painting is strong and rather frightening.

These paintings, in which clean-cut geometric lines combined with the sinuous, organic curves left over from Art Nouveau, came to represent the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s. Art Deco informed the design of everything from buildings, cars and clothes, to cigarette lighters and interiors - especially that of Tamara's own flat, designed by the famous modernist Robert Mallet-Stevens.

Her portraits of the wealthy and fashionable were objects of desire and her own life became ever more flamboyant. Tamara herself was beautiful in a Greta Garbo way, and the combination of her exotic and scandalous reputation and her luxurious paintings made her a celebrity. Very much her own woman, she ran a car and controlled her own bank account, a rarity at the time. In 1928, she and Tadeusz divorced, and she sent her daughter to boarding school. Tamara took cocaine, which kept her awake all night while she partied and painted (she kept at least eight hours of her day-night strictly for painting), and she even found time for art classes. Her manic life style included numerous affairs with both men and women, many of whom were her models as well as her friends.

She always felt insecure financially, until finally, in 1934, she married one of her most wealthy patrons, the Austro-Hungarian landowner Baron Raoul Kuffner, thereby at last arriving at social and financial security. In the late 1930s, with fascism spreading across Europe, the Baron sold his Hungarian estates and they moved to New York, where Tamara continued to paint, but without conviction. Her husband died in 1962, and Tamara died in Mexico in 1980. With suitable self-awareness, she directed that her ashes be scattered over a volcano.

Annie Harris is head of education at the Royal Academy * "Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco Icon" is at the Sackler Galleries, Royal Academy, London until August 30 Tel: 0870 8488484.

Lesson ideas

Art and design

KS 34 Style: Tamara said: "Style is the prime means of changing oneself and becoming what one would like to be." What is style? Compare styles of architecture, clothes, furniture from two different periods and write down what you think are the essentials of each period's style. Do you think Tamara's comment is true?

Influence: compare the promotional image for the exhibition of photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue at the Haywood Gallery ( and the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka. Describe how they are similar. Do you think they influenced each other? How do you think influence works?


Like Art Deco, the Jazz Age covers the 1920s, and so do the novels of F Scott FitzGerald, such as The Great Gatsby. New ideas and styles emerged after the horror of the First World War.

* Discuss why luxury, glamour and "living for the moment" might have been important then; are these the ideas that were expressed in De Lempicka's paintings?

* Make a self-portrait, inventing a style to express different ideas, eg carefulness, lack of ostentation, thought for the future, holding back and not being self-indulgent. See if you can express these ideas through style as much as through content.

* There were not many women artists at this time. Discuss Tamara de Lempicka's ability to market her paintings and to make money in spite of this. Do you think you can tell that her paintings are by a woman? If so, how? Explore the website for other women painting at the same time and compare their work.

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