Tamara De Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence

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9780747552246: Tamara De Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence

Born in 1899 to Russian aristocrats, Tamara de Lempicka escaped the Bolsheviks by exchanging her body for freedom, dramatically beginning a sexual career that included most of the influential men and women she painted. After burning brightly at the centre of Paris's artistic circle, she made her way to America in the late 1930s, where she dazzled and seduced the rich and famous of a new continent. Her paintings, like the artist herself, glow with beauty and sexuality. Contemporary critics, however, dismissed her gorgeously stylised portraits and condemned her scandalous lifestyle. A resurgence of interest in her work occurred in the 1980's, spurred by such celebrity collectors as Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, and Madonna. In this meticulously researched, absorbing biography, Laura Claridge explores Lempicka's artistic accomplishments, her amorous adventures, and the critical judgements that at first excluded her from artistic recognition.

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With her couture clothes and movie-star good looks (she was frequently mistaken for Greta Garbo), Tamara de Lempicka seemed too glamorous to be a serious painter. Even in the years of her greatest success, 1925 to 1935, the luscious colors and highly wrought finishes of her portraits--a suspect genre in any case to high modernists--linked Lempicka more closely to the Italian Renaissance painters she revered than to her cubist contemporaries. She was labeled an "Art Deco artist," someone whose work was more decorative than substantive. Feminist scholar Laura Claridge, a good guide despite her overuse of the phrase "gender politics," enhances readers' appreciation of Lempicka's work without scanting her enjoyably lurid personal life. Born (around 1895) in Russia of Polish and Jewish descent, Lempicka fled the revolution to set up shop in Paris during its avant-garde heyday; the Nazi threat sent her to America, where Hollywood proved a natural setting. Two husbands, one daughter, male and female lovers, manic-depressive illness--nothing ever really cramped her style or her dedication to art. She died in 1980, a venerable survivor still looking forward rather than back. Blending art history with psychological analysis, Claridge helps readers understand why this gifted painter, although commercially successful, has not enjoyed the critical respect she deserves. --Wendy Smith

From the Inside Flap:

An icon of the Jazz Age, Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka lived a life well worth recording. Until now, however, no one has written the story of this woman of extraordinary talent and notoriety. She was a great beauty, an aristocratic refugee of the Russian Revolution, and a frankly erotic painter who insisted upon Renaissance aesthetics, figuration, and painterly craft in modern art. The sky-high prices attached to her canvases in recent years have still not dispelled the suspicions that a woman of Lempicka's glamour and fame could be a truly serious artist. Yet the reviews of the early twentieth century tell a different story: her work was routinely singled out as competing with major figures of the School of Paris, including Léger, Laurençin, Kisling, and Picasso.

In this first critical biography, Laura Claridge draws upon her exclusive access to Lempicka's family, friends, and archives to re-create the life that the painter carefully withheld even from her own daughter: the truth of her birth; her escape from Bolshevik Russia; her determination to become a New Woman; her lifelong bouts of depression; her numerous affairs with the women and men she painted; her flight from Nazi Europe via Havana; and her years in Hollywood and New York as the "Baroness with a brush," all informed by the artistic integrity and social anachronism that condemned her to being written out of the canons of modern art.

Emblematic of '20s excess and indulgence, Tamara de Lempicka's life of great wealth, indiscriminate sexuality, and endless intrigue makes for a fascinating narrative. But her paintings have inspired fierce disagreements over issues of class, wealth, and gender in modern art, making her work ripe for critical re-evaluation. In Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, Laura Claridge has succeeded brilliantly on both counts, bringing to light the contradictions that fueled the life and work of this provocative painter.

Though Paris in the early twenties certainly earned its bohemian reputation, Tamara was playing the game hard by anyone's standards. It seemed to her that she could have it all: respect, money, and sexual gratification on the side. She had arrived at the Gare du Nord only four years earlier, gifted with a painter's talent and a family history of feminine power. Encountering a cultural climate that affirmed art as a remunerative career for women, she also felt freed personally by the Modernist mantra to "make it new" that underwrote every aspect--trivial and profound--of daily life. She was determined to embody that icon of the age, the new woman.

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