Lempicka, Lesbian Art Deco Queen, Reigns Again in Paris
Married twice, she preferred women.
Tamara de Lempicka was not only one of the most glamorous socialites of the “annees folles,” the “roaring twenties” in Paris. She also was one of the most fashionable portrait painters of her time.
In the U.S., where she spent the second half of her life, she has still many admirers, not least among the show-biz crowd: Madonna is one of her most avid collectors.
In Paris, the arbiters of taste never took her quite seriously. The show at the Pinacotheque de Paris is only the second retrospective in the city in which she had celebrated her greatest triumphs.
The first, a relatively modest affair, took place in 2006 in the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Lempicka (1898-1980) was born Maria Gorska in Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire. She arrived in Paris after World War I as one of the many refugees fleeing the Bolshevik revolution.
Because her husband, a lawyer, was unable to find suitable work, madame had to do the bread winning.
Back in Russia, she had started painting as a hobby. Now, she took it up in earnest and soon developed her own, characteristic style.
Her sharply outlined, poster-like portraits of the smart set owe much to what we now call Art Deco, the fashionable style of design and decoration in the 1920s and 1930s.
Most of her sitters were women. Lempicka made no secret of her sexual preference: The show is teeming with voluptuous nudes in daring positions.
For a long time, she was involved with the celebrated night-club singer Suzy Solidor, whom she also portrayed in the nude. That portrait, one of Lempicka’s best, is not in the show.
Instead, we are treated to her almost hysterical correspondence with the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, a notorious lecher, 35 years her senior. She hoped to paint him; he hoped to bed her. They were both disappointed.
In 1927, her husband had enough of his wife’s unorthodox lifestyle and left her.
In 1939, she moved with her second husband, a Hungarian nobleman, to Hollywood. By then, she had largely fallen out of fashion. The still lifes and religious paintings of her later period have nothing of the steely brilliance of her Paris years.
She died in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In a last grand gesture, her ashes were scattered over the volcano Popocatepetl.
The Pinacotheque is known for its outlandish claims and odd mixtures. True to form, it confronts the “Queen of Art Deco” with a second show devoted to Art Nouveau.
Art Nouveau and Art Deco, we’re told, are “mutually antagonistic movements,” Art Deco being a “reaction and opposition to Art Nouveau.”
That’s, at best, a half-truth.
When Art Deco took shape with the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (hence the name) in Paris 1925, the undulating, floral style of Art Nouveau had long been a thing of the past.
Neither in Germany, Austria or Italy, where it was known as Jugendstil, Sezessionsstil and Stile Liberty, it survived the Great War.
Never mind. The second show brings together more than 200 objects -- paintings, posters, lithographs, furniture, glassworks, jewelry -- from French private collections. They are pleasant to look at though more of a hodgepodge than a systematic overview.
Not all the pieces are really “nouveau.” Some belong to an older salon style, such as Georges Clairin’s portrait of another lady with a healthy sexual appetite -- Sarah Bernhardt.
Both exhibitions run through Sept. 8. Information: http://www.pinacotheque.com.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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