Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco icon Royal Academy, Tuesday 1 June 2004

Her images are well known, her background rather less so. Judging from this show, Tamara de Lempicka fitted so perfectly into both her work and her period that it’s a surprise.

Before her super-stylised look arrived, Portrait of a Young Lady in a Blue Dress shows she could definitely paint, although she was already using a plain/plane background. Just three years later, she had her debut show. One critic later remarked, “Lighting by Ingres, Cubism by Leger, lipstick by Chanel”. As the commentary says, “She herself was her most successful creation”.

Very soon, though, works such as The Kiss moved her toward Futurism and neo-Cubism, with varying perspectives and angular portrayals and the technical skill to serve this approach, as depicted by clever and assured handling of refracted flower stems in a square glass vase in Arlette Boucard with Arums and Cassandre-style ships in the background of a portrait of her daughter, Kizette in Pink.

Sexuality of many kinds is strongly present in many of the paintings, and even when this is not the case, her subjects reveal a startling insight into De Lempicka’s circle – cocaine at parties, half-naked waitresses; the Marquess Sommi was a bisexual, occult-loving futurist composer, the Duchess de la Salle hung out with Rasputin’s murderer Yusupov, who wore a dress. One model was allegedly a policeman, who when disrobed laid his revolver on top of his uniform.

De Lempicka had and showed a tender side. Intimate, almost shy depictions of Maternity; Sleeping Girl, a small naturalistic study of unguarded vulnerability; a series of pieces sharing one particular model with softer, more realistic flesh and a quieter colour palette. In one, the shadows on her thighs are like an Old Master – David, perhaps.

But it is the pictures with clothes so smooth they look airbrushed, like bas reliefs, and a view as cool and detached as inter-war architectural photographs that made De Lempicka’s fortune. And yet whilst artificial, the eyes aren’t dead, they are alive. And though Marjorie Ferry is metallic and controlled, the black/grey/silver/white of the drapery and the architecture makes her warm skin, red lips and yellow hair stand out

This was a terrific show. De Lempicka was an astonishing figure even by the standards of the time. Her work is unique, and shows an extraordinary duality. Anyone who can have a life such as hers and still put ‘housewife’ on her US visa application must have something to say, and she speaks beautifully.

Portrait of Madame Boucard

Portrait of Madame Boucard, representative of De Lempicka's work (Boucard Collection, Paris)

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