Tamara de Lempicka: the journey of the bird of paradise

In the mid-1930s, a new trend appeared in her works. The artist reminded herself of the Polish tradition. In 1933 she painted "La Polonaise" - a portrait of a girl in a national costume with a prayer book in her hand. She also began to paint images of Madonna. Two years later, the moving painting "Mother Superior" was created, which, according to the legend she told, depicted the abbess of the order that Lempicka allegedly wanted to join.

Whether we like it or not, Tamara Lempicka is, in the opinion of the world, the most famous Polish painter of the 20th century. The celebrated Maria Skłodowska-Curie is considered by many to be French, but the leading art deco painter who cared incomparably less about her country is presented as a Polish painter in almost all sources. But only now, more than 30 years after the fall of communism, Poland has finally seen a large exhibition presenting the life and work of this savant of painting: "Tamara de Lempicka - a woman on a journey".

The National Museum in Lublin and the private museum Villa La Fleur from Konstancin-Jeziorna near Warsaw, have done a great job bringing to the country the artist's works scattered around museums and private collections worldwide. "The exhibition is intended to show the artist's work in a carefully arranged scenography - objects, costumes, and the context of the epoch," wrote Katarzyna Mieczkowska, director of the Lublin facility in the exhibition catalog. It is thanks to the painter's great-granddaughter, Marisa de Lempicka, that we can see memorabilia, which are family heirlooms.

Tamara Lempicka has never been associated with Lublin, but it was here that the first exhibition of her works after the Second World War was organized. The only monument of the artist in Poland is in Kielce, although she has never been associated with this city either. If she valued any place at all, it was Warsaw - she always mentioned it as her birthplace and visited it several times in the interwar period. It was the only time when the exhibition of her works in the capital of Poland was even possible.

Then there was the war, and in the communist era, the artist was too defiantly bourgeois to attract the attention of cultural decision-makers. In Polish museums, apart from one painting "Weariness" (at the National Museum in Warsaw), there were no works of hers at all. The provocative eroticism of her female and male acts, which was not tolerated in the Polish People's Republic, certainly played a role in this awkward silence around Lempicka.

And why was she not exhibited after 1990? The problem was that Lempicka's works were already top-shelf collector’s items and it was not easy to bring them to the country. This neglect is being made up just now.

The authors of the Lublin exhibition chose the most natural way to present her paintings: they decided to tell the story of life of Tamara Łepmicka and the era in which this scandalist of painting achieved her greatest success.

On a high level

Lempicka was a master in creating her image and in directing her own life as she would an exciting spectacle. She was born in 1898, and although she liked to rejuvenate herself - she often gave 1902 as her date of birth. It was a constant practice of image-conscious women in an era when birth certificates were lost in revolutions and wars. Some researchers, however, suspect that she might not have been born in Warsaw, but in Moscow.
Tamara de Lempicka, the master of self-creation. Photo Getty Images
Her family name was Maria Gurwik-Górska. She was the daughter of a well-known lawyer, Boris Gurvik-Górski, who came from a wealthy Jewish family in Moscow, and his wife Malwina née Dekler. The Dekler family also had Jewish roots but had been assimilated for at least two generations, and its members considered themselves to be Polish.

When Tamara was just a few years old, her father abandoned the family. The artist's mother returned with her from Moscow to Warsaw and left Tamara to her mother, Klementyna Dekler, for upbringing. It was probably her grandmother's upbringing that helped Tamara identify with Poland.

The Deklers’ salon was a meeting place for the Warsaw elite. Ignacy Paderewski and Artur Rubnstein performed here. Grandmother Dekler was wealthy and could afford to travel to Italy. Due to her interest in art history, she showed her granddaughter the treasures of painting and sculpture in Florence, Rome, and Venice. The masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, filtered through the imagination of a young girl, will have an impact on the artist's works, who for the rest of her life will respect the classicism and mannerism of Italian masters.

Tamara got married very young, at the age of 18. In Petersburg, a young lawyer of Polish origin, Tadeusz Łempicki, won her heart.

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The prosperous, satiated, and safe world collapsed with the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. Lempicki was taken away by the Bolshevik Cheka, and Tamara got to know the brutal face of totalitarianism. She went through hell to get her husband released from prison and for them to obtain permission to go abroad with their daughter Maria Krystyna.

Years later, Lempicka will say that to obtain the Bolshevik consent, she had to give herself to the Danish ambassador to Moscow. But historians suspect it may have been a captivating tale with a spicy detail which she made up later. A much more probable version is that the release of the husband and the departure of the Lempicki family from Petersburg to Paris via Stockholm were the result of the efforts of Aleksander Lednicki - an influential lawyer and representative of the Regency Council in Moscow at the time.

Like many of those escaping from Russia, the Lempicki family went to Paris. Interestingly, Lempicki did nothing to go to Warsaw. The choice of the French capital as a place to settle seems to have been that of Tamara’s, as she made the decision to become a painter, and Paris was considered the center of the art world at the time. Her sister Adrianna, was already there and had made many acquaintances among the Parisian bohemian circles. Adrianna was one of the first women in the city to graduate with an architectural diploma.

It is believed that Tamara took drawing lessons already when living in St. Petersburg and Warsaw. This made it easier for her to become an apprentice at the studio of the cubist painter André Lhote.

In 1922, Łempicka was ready to exhibit her first works. It is difficult to omit that her sister Adrianna was on the board of a committee that decided to include Tamara's paintings in the famous exhibit, Salon d'Automne.

Carpe diem

Some say that there are people who can find themselves in the right place at the right time, and with the right offer. Tamara Lempicka was such a person.
The beginning of the 1920s was a turbulent period. The elites were dealing with the trauma of the bloody First World War. Some people were fascinated by communism as a promise of a better future for everyone, others saw an opportunity in the ideology offered by Mussolini. Some of the survivors - if they could afford it - threw themselves into a whirlwind of noisy fun. The synonyms of modernity were aviators, motorists, and potential candidates for tough leaders.

Tamara quickly learned how to choose friends who kept her moving upward. She read correctly that whether or not someone is considered an outstanding painter was determined by the opinion of socialites and pundits. So, she figured, one ought to create a taste for one’s name. A painting with such a signature would surely increase in value. All of this, thanks to the power of fashion and the elite opinion. At the Lublin exhibition, graphics attract the most attention. It was Tamara’s artistic credo and made her truly famous. “Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti)” appeared on the cover of "Die Dame" magazine in July 1929. A German magazine dedicated to wealthy, liberated women was eager to see references to aviation and motoring as the symbols of the new era. The covers for the magazine were designed by another savant of that era - Janina Dłuska, a painter, designer and decorator.

Tamara did not need to be convinced that the choice of the image of a determined, emancipated tomboy was the bull's eye. The avant-garde was in her blood. Her mother's brother, Zygmunt Dekler, was publishing the "The Aviator and the Motorist" magazine in Warsaw already in 1911. In one of the first issues, you could see an ad for a driving school in Warsaw with the image of a lady driving a sports car on her own.

Fiona MacCarthy, an art historian writes: "If there is an image that symbolizes art deco, it is a self-portrait of Tamara de Lempicka in a green Bugatti." The painting is so thrilling that it makes many rich ladies from the Parisian society order their portraits from Łempicka.
Based on the paintings displayed at the Lublin exhibition one could examine the innovative nature of Lempicka’s style, which made her so popular. It was a synthesis of the traditional portrait technique with the elements characteristic of the graphics, typical of advertising and poster art of the time, with their bright, flashy colors. Lempicka preferred lighting her models in a way typical of artistic photography and futurist visuality. When asked about her favorite painter, however, she did not give the names from her era but answered briefly: Carpaccio. This Venetian painter from the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries was her idol.

Tamara Lempicka delighted her contemporaries with her ability to capture the beauty of the human body in a painterly form. As Katarzyna Nowakowska-Sito writes in the exhibition catalog: “This conservative modernist adored old art, especially Italian mannerists. She shared with them a favorite motif of standing or resting figure that almost filled the frame. In Tamara's paintings, the portrayed people often assumed a pose with opposing body axes, a favorite of mannerists, called figura serpentinata , seeming to slide gracefully across the diagonal of the canvas.

Germain Bazin, a longtime curator of the Louvre wrote of Lempicka: "Her goal was the same as that of the Mannerists from Florence or Milan - to sacrifice everything for the effect of the beauty of the human body." And when the viewers watched these, very often naked, acts and portraits, an additional element of the talk around town were the rumors about characters from her paintings that Lempicka had alleged affairs with, be it male or female.

Her daughter Maria Krystyna, nicknamed Kizette, who was an involuntary witness to her mother's numerous erotic conquests, brutally called her ability to seduce "the killer instinct". And so half of Europe was getting excited over Lempicka's visit to the residence of the fascist Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. There was no end to considering whether she became another erotic trophy of the Italian scandalist. And Lempicka heated the atmosphere by talking to newspapers and confessing that: "the poet's company gives a lot of interesting impressions, so does his entire surroundings".

Tadeusz Lempicki, who got a job in one of the best Parisian banks, finally lost interest in the role of a cuckold and returned to Warsaw. There he won the hand of the daughter of the owner of the largest pharmaceutical factory in Poland. His portrait at the exhibition is the painter's farewell to a man who did not live up to her appetite for life.
Artistic farewell to her first husband: "Unfinished man." Photo MARIO GUZMAN / EPA / PAP.
For the role of her next husband, Lempicka picked a wealthy baron, Raoul von Kuffner. He was to give her both luxurious life and artistic freedom. This is when her career took off. Tamara created a special advertising spot, invited journalists to her studio, and built herself a modern atelier. She imitates the pioneering Parisian fashion creators, perfecting her PR on their example.

The exhibition clearly shows the differences between the paintings from the 1920s, which praise vitalism, modernity, and the works from the 1930s. At first, Łempicka loved the images of young women who yet already in full bloom. There were seemingly no limits, life was plentiful, and the world belonged to those who were not afraid of anything. In her paintings, therefore, one can find tennis players, ski champions, and baronesses in breeches and riding boots; women, who at times look like ruthless beasts ready to trample on anyone who stands in their way of life. They are aware of their eroticism and know how to use it.

In the mid-1930s, a new trend appeared in her works. The artist reminded herself of the Polish tradition. In 1933 she painted "La Polonaise" - a portrait of a girl in a national costume with a prayer book in her hand. She also began to paint images of Madonna. Two years later, the moving painting "Mother Superior" was created, which, according to the legend she told, depicted the abbess of the order that Lempicka allegedly wanted to join. Of course, the painter did not choose a convent asceticism, but the whole story fitted perfectly with the dramatic packaging, in which she enveloped her life.

On the other hand, she did not have to invent this drama on purpose. Her granddaughter recalled that her grandmother spoke of the famine in Bolshevik St. Petersburg and people tearing meat off of the dead horses. Lempicka also experienced the bitter fate of a refugee who ended up on the streets of Paris. At the exhibition, everyone will probably stop by the painting "Refugees" from 1931. It is a dark-colored image of a mother holding her son as they escape following the destruction of her former life. Both mother and son look grimly into the distance, missing what was before and thinking fearfully about the future.

Escape overseas
Who knows if the moving scene from the American movie "Cabaret", when the singer from Hitler Youth seduces the visitors of the German Bierhaus with the power of his song, was not inspired by Lempicka’s memories. In 1938, Tamara and her husband, the baron, visited one of the resorts in Austria. They saw with their own eyes how the march of the Hitler Youth unit performing Nazi songs, in a split second turned the recuperating people watching this parade, into a sinister crowd engulfed in a Nazi frenzy. As Lempicka recalled, this experience prompted her to persuade her husband to sell his property in Hungary.

With the money obtained, they left overseas in February of 1939. The instinct to escape from the Bolshevik rule did not disappoint Łempicka. The war did indeed break out, and she, with her Jewish roots, would probably have ended up in one of the death camps of the Third Reich.

In America, she chose Hollywood for the location of her portrait studio. She received orders, but she was no longer such a big star as in Paris. She changed the painting style, moving towards hyperrealism, but she was not as successful as before the war. She had to face the fact that her style went out of fashion. She compensated for the growing dissatisfaction with the dimming fame with numerous travels. Ultimately she settled down in Mexico, where she died in 1980. She had her ashes scattered from the helicopter over the hills of a Popocatepetl volcano.

Already in 1973, she was rediscovered on the wave of retro fashion. In the 80s and 90s of the 20th century and at the beginning of this one, there are large monographic exhibitions in her honor held in Italy, France, and finally in 2004 at the Royal Academy of Art in London. In 2018, her painting "The Musician" was sold at an auction in New York for over $ 9 million. A year later, the painting "The Pink Tunic" went for $ 13.3 million. Lempicka's paintings are collected by Madonna, who used the artist's works in her famous music video "Vogue".

For the Polish audience, it meant that Łempicka's paintings were extremely difficult to bring to Poland. All the more praise for the organizers of the Lublin exhibition, who managed to borrow about 40 works from French museums as well as from private collections. No one knows when there will be an opportunity to see them again.

But the exhibition also makes one ponder over the interwar period. This peculiar time, when the slogan of modernity, was picked up by the communist camp, and on the other hand, the world of luxurious hedonism was also excited about it. If you look for a symbolic queen of the latter camp, it was undoubtedly Tamara Łempicka, born in Warsaw.

– Piotr Semka

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Sally Jastrzębska

The exhibition "Tamara Łempicka - a woman in travel" will be open at the National Museum in Lublin until August 14, 2022. From September 14, 2022, it will be on display at Villa La Fleur in Konstancin near Warsaw.
Main photo: Tamara Łempicka's 1929 "Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti" can be seen at the Lublin exhibition. Photo PAP / Bartłomiej Wójtowicz
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