She ‘...set down her drawing board, and leaned forward. When I felt her hair wisping against my face again, I inhaled sharply. When she kissed me I sighed….I had never kissed lips so soft. She stood and lifted the scarf off me. Her eyes were like silver. ‘Oh?’ she said, holding the scarf in the air, the pale chiffon with its darker, wet bull’s eye. I closed my eyes, abashed. I couldn’t open them. I heard Tamara set her rings deliberately on the table before she said, ‘What’s going on here?‘
I know where there are a couple of stands of them in the city – one in the foyer of the State Library, the other at the entrance to the Long Gallery, Salamanca. It was at the latter I spotted those particular cards as I mounted the stairs to see an exhibition. I instantly recognised the artist’s work on them – or, at least, I thought I did. ‘I wonder why they’re advertising de Lempicka,’ I thought to myself.
Avant postcards are in similar stands at numerous locations all around the country. They give notice of upcoming events or, more excitingly for me, feature the work of artists and photographers trying to get their name out there into the public domain. As I reached for a handful of the cards I’d spotted, I soon saw they weren’t an example of the oeuvre of the artist I had in mind, but the work of another entirely. You could see, though, this painter was under de Lempicka’s spell, as I have been for some time now.
Think paintings that best represent the art deco style and more and more art fans think of the ‘baroness with the brush’, Tamara de Lempicka. She was the most fashionable portraitist of her generation. Celebrities lined up to be painted by her, but the Depression saw her popularity wane, only to be revived in the final three decades of the last century and into our new millennium. She is well and truly back in vogue, her daubings instantly recognisable and these days, ubiquitous.
The artist was born Maria Górska in Warsaw in 1898. She was of Jewish background surrounded by wealth. The future Tamara de L attended boarding school in Switzerland and during her formative years lived in a variety of places, including the French Riviera and St Petersburg. She spotted the man she intended to marry at age fifteen and did so three years later – Tadeusz Lempicki. He wanted her for her money – not a recipe for success.
Come the Revolution and the couple were forced to flee to Paris, minus a significant proportion of their assets. Here Tamara gave birth to her daughter Kizette and became immersed in the bohemian life of the city, soon entranced by Picasso and the Cubists. She took to the brush to try and make a crust – something her layabout hubby thought beneath him. She was a quick worker, soon finding a populist approach to her renderings – one that would readily sell, it turned out. After 1925 she was exhibiting all over Europe and was charging top dollar for her portraits to boot. She fell in lust with many of her sitters. Even the notorious Gabriele D’Annunzio came under her spell, although it seems he failed to bed her.
She owned the Roaring Twenties like few others. If Gatsby was the male epitome, she was the female. She mixed with Cocteau and Gide, Collette and Sackville-West. She was also flamboyantly bisexual, neglecting not only the wastrel Tadeusz but also her daughter. She soon had a rich man as both her patron and sugar daddy. Travelling to the US was also on her agenda – here she fell in with de Kooning and Georgia O’Keeffe. Later on she married her older suitor, Raoul Kuffner, thus gaining her title, Baroness. With the advent of the second great war her star had well and truly diminished but, undeterred, she kept painting, trying out new styles to an unresponsive public. She also moved permanently to America, paralleling a move into prickly old age. The end saw her residing in Mexico where she died of a stroke in 1980. Her ashes were spread on Popocatepetl. She did live long enough to see her work reassessed by the artistic trendsetters, who declared that owning one or more of her works definitely put you front and centre amongst the in-crowd. These days her collectors include Madonna, Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand.
The opening paragraph of this scribbling is taken from ‘The Last Nude’ and are the initial sentences to a description of a lesbian coupling between the painter and one of her models – what follows is very saucy indeed. Ellis Avery’s novel is based on the main facts of the great woman’s life, but the gaps are filled in by supposition. The work received, on publication, rave reviews and several prestigious gongs in the United States. Reading the four pages of recommendations that prefaced the story in the book, as I perused it in a Melbourne bookshop, I felt I must be in for a real treat and rushed to the counter to purchase. I enjoy novels that do add made up substance to fact, plus it was about a favourite heroine, so what could go wrong?
Although I did manage to finish it, I really had to force myself to turn each page and refrain from skimming. I found it dirgeful, the writing uninspiring. Sad to say that the only time it came alive was with its few erotic passages – not enough to keep this customer satisfied. But it obviously struck a chord in America – so much so that Lempickaphiles can take a tour of Paris around its featured sites!
The major part of Avery’s offering is taken from the point of view of Rafaela Fano, an escapee from tight American strictures, enjoying the freedom the French capital affords. But she finds it struggletown too, even despite the seventeen year old’s willingness to use her body to achieve her ends. Life changes markedly when she is discovered by de Lempicka who offers to pay her to pose. Soon it is posing minus garments, apart from a well placed scarf – and before too long the two are intimately exploring each other’s body parts. As time proceeds both end up having much else on the boil as well, with the result that, at times, the plot and who was who lost me. I just wasn’t interested enough in all their scheming and machinations. The final part features the portraitist in her old age, contrary and cantankerous, with some her and Rafaela’s back story filled as bonus. The Washington Post describes ‘The Last Nude’ as ‘A compulsively readable novel.’ I found it anything but.
But the positive spin-off is that I discovered the postcards and through them, at the top of the stairs in the Salamanca Arts Centre, Catherine Abel. The card I initially took to be a de Lempicka was in fact Abel’s ‘La Femme en Soie’, an example of her expertise from only last year. It features a cool blonde, presumably from the Flapper Age, peering out at the viewer, draped in striped silk (soie), bejewelled and enticing. Up in the ether I found much more to like from this artist who readily admits the debt she owes to the daubing baroness, as well as to Picasso, Braque and Dali. This Australian has indeed honed her experience by travelling to Paris and has been a finalist for the Archibalds. She describes her infatuation with de Lempicka by likening her to ‘…the teacher I never had.’ It was seeing the Baroness’ masterpieces during her overseas sojourns that inspired her to attempt to paint for a living. As well as Abel’s figurative work, there are still lifes and landscapes to be viewed on-line. But its certainly her stunning capturings of the feminine form that stand-out, as is the case with her role model. So if you too fancy the work of the icon of the twenties, check out her modern day acolyte. Beware – for, as with de Lempicka, some of her product is NSFW.
So the disappointment of the book has been offset by discovering a new artist to follow the progress of with interest. And if for me Avery’s book didn’t capture the spirit of T de L, Catherine Abel certainly does.
Gallery of Catherine Abel’s work = http://www.catherineabel.com/
Gallery of Tamara de Lempicka’s work = http://www.tamara-de-lempicka.org/
Ellis Avery Website = http://ellisavery.com/
A ‘Last Nude’ tour of Paris = https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/the-last-nude-a-literary-tour-of-paris/