Along with many others, I recently had the opportunity to enjoy the stage production of “Tamara L” at the Polish American Cultural Center. Joseph Hart, the newest member of our editorial team at FORUM, recently reviewed the play. Because of Eugene Bak’s efforts to bring the Polish theatrical troupe and their play, “Tamara L” to Cleveland, I take the opportunity to convey to our readers some of the interesting history of the twenties, and to tell about one of the fascinating figures at the center of that era.When we think about the twenties, “the roaring twenties” as they are called, we think of wild, golden years of excess and incredible energy. Al Capone, the Charleston, Marlena Dietrich, jazz, the prohibition all come to mind. One of the most outstanding features of the era was a daring new style in art called Art Deco. It mixed functionality with a geometric stylization of forms. Designers working with jewelry, pottery, glass, clothing, furnishings and interiors outdid one another to create fantastic works. They were remarkable and unique for their use of sleek geometric design– straight lines combined with slender forms and bright colors that simply sparkled with boldness and originality. Painting in the Art Deco style was very clearly influenced by cubism and futurism and one of the most important artists of the Art Deco style of painting was a Pole, Tamara Lempicka.
Maria Gorska, for that was her real name, was born in Warsaw in 1898, to the wealthy household of well-known Polish lawyer and leader of a French trading company, Boris Gorski. She was a headstrong child, dominating everyone around her, always in charge of her play companions. This assertive character stayed with her throughout life and played no small role in her life’s journey. After her parents divorced, a wealthy godmother that lavished attention, beautiful clothes and gifts on her raised Tamara. She saw to Tamara’s every need and desire, sending her to Switzerland for schooling and on vacations. On one of her visits to her Aunt Stephania’s home in St. Petersburg, the remodeling of her wealthy uncle’s home by the famous French firm, Maison Jansen, fascinated Tamara. This was a breakthrough moment for her because she realized then what she wanted to do with her life.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Maria fell madly in love with a handsome young lawyer from Warsaw, Tadeusz Lempicki. He became her obsession and reason for living. With her strong temperament and will, she was able to arrange so that they were married two years later in St. Petersburg. Her wealthy uncle set them up with everything the young couple could possibly need to start their life together in the stylish, expensive city. Young Lempicki, who had not more than a few pennies in his pockets, was very glad indeed that he had married his young, (she was just 16) and beautiful bride. A year later, when Lempicki was picked up and arrested by the Bolsheviks, Tamara bravely and unrelentingly battled the revolutionary forces. With all of her abilities to influence, using her feminine charm and cleverness as well as plenty of money to convince the communist bureaucrats, she was able to free her husband.
Frightened by what they saw happening around them in post revolutionary Russia, they fled to Paris and there Tamara embarked on her fantastic career. She studied painting at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and at the Academie Ranson with M. Denis and A. Lothe. She worked hard, day and night quickly becoming a well- known portrait painter in the Art Deco style. Her clientele were mostly well known persons – the elites, the movers and shakers of the times. These connections, and her most unusual behavior — that of a truly liberated woman, won her a place in every artistic and intellectual salon of any note in Paris. Her painting “Tamara in a Green Bugatti” came to be known as the representative portrait of the emancipated woman –one who knew how to obtain exactly what she wanted. Designer dresses, fast cars, small scandals, financial independence all helped her realize her desires and fulfill every wish. Because she loved art as much as the sophisticated social scene she circulated in, her portrait models were mostly the members of that glittering society
The artistic style of the 1920’s was labeled “Cubism” and later in the 1930’s, “Neoclassicism”. Lempicka’s works were actually more closely related to the works of Ingres because of their sensuality and eroticism, with the subjects depicted belonging to an era of wealth and privilege.
Thus she gained the reputation as the most important portrait artist of the Art Deco movement. She was able to portray her subjects with a strong, almost sinister energy emanating from them while inspiring a sense of life and sensuality, all captured in the moment, frozen in an icy, mysterious aura. Critics discussing her work referred to the spirit of Ingres and his eroticism. But Ingres had belonged to a more innocent era in art. Tamara however, was not troubling herself with questions of innocence and morality. Several of her male subjects were her lovers. The portrait of Tadeusz Lempicki, whom she divorced after several years of marriage, was never completed. D’Annuzio whose favor she actively sought, never became a model.
Sensing impending doom as the storm clouds of WWII gathered, Tamara left Europe with her second husband, Baron Raul Kuffneren, for the United States. She took up residence in Hollywood in the former home of well-known movie director King Vidor (“War and Peace” with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda) in famous Beverly Hills. In 1943 she moved with her husband to New York City where they purchased an apartment, and furnished it with antiques from the Hungarian estate of the baron. Tamara installed a studio and with a great passion pursued her painting there. It became quite fashionable to own a Lempicki. She had fans that paid her in advance for an entire year’s work. One of her most avid collectors was Dr. Boucard, a scientist who had made his fortune in discovering a medication. And there were other wealthy patrons like Rufus Bush. Upon first arriving in the U.S. she experienced the market crash on Wall Street. At the time, she was painting a portrait of the Spanish king, Alphonse. In America, Tamara adjusted the subject matter of her paintings. She was able to save her husband and herself from financial ruin with paintings like “Girls of Bretogne,”,“Young Dutch Girls” or “Mother Superior”. (We were able to see the atmosphere in which that painting was created as it was recaptured in the play “Tamara L” at the Center.) “Mother Superior” is in the collection of the Musee des Beaux Arts in Nance.
Tamara returned to Paris after WWII and reopened her once famous studio near the Rue Mechain. She was designing interiors at the time and many of her friends and acquaintances quickly lined up to have her design and decorate their homes and apartments in her very unique style.
After the death of the baron, Tamara moved to Houston to be near her daughter Kizette Lempicka. The fifties and sixties were not kind. Times had changed and Tamara felt forgotten and abandoned, unappreciated as an artist. In 1966 the Musee des Arts Decoratifs organized the exhibit “Les Annes 25” (The 25 years) which renewed worldwide interest in Art Deco, and in her work. Soon afterwards the Luxembourg Gallery opened a retrospective exhibit of Tamara Lempicka’s paintings. The exhibit was a tremendous success and signaled the beginning of her triumphant return.
Cuernavaca, Mexico was to be her final home where she retired in 1978. In her later years, she struggled to accept the debilities of age and mourned her lost beauty. Tamara Lempicka died March 18, 1980 with her daughter Kizette by her side. According to her wishes, she was cremated and her remains were sprinkled from an airplane over the crater of Mt. Popocatepeti, a volcano that never rests.
Tamara Lempicka in painting the portrait of “Mother Superior” asks questions about the artist’s calling; the purpose that art plays in society; why we create art and why we strive for spiritual excellence through it. These universal questions about human reasoning and values seem to be as valid today, in our times of strife, war and terrorism as they have ever been. It is our hope that we can continue to progress in the future not solely for the purpose of technological advancement, nor for better and bigger arms and weapons or for economic purposes, but on a basis true to our deepest spiritual values.
Translated by Zofia Wisniwski