A Life of Deco and Decadence

By Laura Claridge

Potter. 436 pp. $35

Reviewed by Selwa Roosevelt

The sensual and erotic nude painting "La Bella Rafaela" is the cover design for the first full-scale biography of Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), and as I read the book -- mostly on airplanes -- I found myself wishing that I had put a brown paper camouflage over it.

Not, I hasten to add, for any prudish reasons, but rather for the attention the cover attracted wherever I happened to be. Although it was distracting, the unabashed curiosity of my fellow passengers was a lesson in the compelling nature of de Lempicka's extraordinary painting, described in the London Sunday Times as "one of the most important nudes of the 20th century."

Indeed, as I read this biography by Laura Claridge, a feminist scholar, lecturer and former professor of English literature, I found myself turning back to the cover, mesmerized by de Lempicka's genius. And genius she was, though remarkably unappreciated during her lifetime except for her Paris period in the 1920s and '30s when her Art Deco portraits were all the rage. Since her death in 1980, however, there has been a dramatic enhancement and revival of her reputation. (A recent example -- the sale for almost $2 million of her "Adam and Eve" at a Christie's auction in 1994.)

Strikingly beautiful, with enormous style, Lempicka was born in Moscow, of an upper class Polish family with some Russian and Jewish ancestors in the mix. Apparently, she was always reluctant to reveal her country of birth -- perhaps because the family subsequently had to flee the Russian revolution.

She spent her formative years between Warsaw and the whirl of St. Petersburg society and set her cap for the very handsome Tadeusz Julian Junosza-Lempicki, the son of a hereditary Polish nobleman. She pursued him, married him, and gave him a daughter, Kizette, in 1916. A year later, their extravagant and privileged lifestyle came to a precipitous end as the Bolsheviks took over. Like so many aristocratic refugees from the Russian revolution, Lempicka and her husband fled to Paris, arriving disheveled and exhausted, with a seemingly bleak future. But, as author Claridge says: "A real life Slavic Scarlett O'Hara, shaped by a different civil war, Lempicka made up her mind that she would never go hungry again, nor would she be reduced to depending on others for her security."

Those years in Paris forged her career -- both as a painter and as a salonierre, but in a sense, the two were incompatible. She desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a painter -- not as a international socialite and arbiter of high fashion who dabbled in art.

But, says the author, Lempicka reveled in debauchery -- in testing the limits of the wild side -- proclaiming herself a "new woman" prepared to satisfy a voracious sexual appetite with both men and women. In the end, the handsome Tadeusz Lempicki departed, for a calmer, more traditional wife. Later Tamara de Lempicka married Baron Raoul Kuffner de Dioszegh, a noted patron of the arts who collected her works and gave her great social clout.

The baron was from a distinguished Hungarian Czech Jewish family, and in the 1930s, as the Nazis rose to power, Lempicka and her husband saw clearly the dangers of staying in Europe. First they headed to Cuba, and then to Hollywood, and finally, in 1942, they settled in New York City. It was only after the baron's death in 1961 that Lempicka left New York to divide her time between Houston, where her daughter, Kizette, had settled with her husband, and Cuernavaca, where she maintained a house until her death.

Author Claridge follows this hegira in sometimes excruciating detail. One wishes that she had been more imaginative in her writing and a little less diligent in recording every known fact. (I also wish she could have given us a chronology of the artist's life and the dates of her major works as an appendix.)

There are certain themes that repeat themselves over and over: Lempicka's outsider status; her rejection by the School of Paris; her never being classified as a Modernist; her falling into the category of Art Deco almost by default, though Art Deco is a more suitable description for architecture and the decorative arts. Her strong, sexually charged depictions of the human form owed more to her attraction to Italian painting of the Renaissance than to any modern school. And finally, she could find no refuge -- nor did she wish to -- in the abstract movement, which so dominated American art.

In addition, Lempicka was notoriously politically incorrect. In a world where liberal sentiments were the fashion, she was outspokenly anti-communist. She was almost always rich, whereas the fashionable cliche had artists struggling and impoverished.

Then there was the question of Lempicka's dual personality. On the one hand, she was attracted to the glitterati, dissipation and excess. On the other, she was disciplined, hardworking and original. She was not a traditional feminist but a woman stronger than most men. She coupled with both sexes but definitely seemed to prefer males -- as husbands, lovers and patrons. Claridge points out, however, that Lempicka never took a great male artist as a lover and so never had a champion who could help win her recognition on the strength of his fame. (This apparently was very important for painters such as Frida Kahlo, whose husband was Diego Rivera.)

Full appreciation was not to come until after Lempicka's death. Thanks to Alain Blondel, a prominent art dealer, all her known works -- a total of 500 oils, 150 drawings and numerous watercolors and prints -- have been catalogued. A number of important retrospectives have appeared both in America and abroad. And Lempicka has been the subject of books, articles, even a successful Broadway play.

Today, Tamara de Lempicka's work is found in many major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some who collect her work are more famous than she -- Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson, to name a few. And her place in modern art seems assured, regardless of what the cognoscenti finally decide to label it. Claridge's biography, with its handsome color plates of some of Lempicka's most famous paintings, is an important step in according this artist the recognition she deserves.

Selwa Roosevelt is a former U.S. chief of protocol and an active supporter of the arts.