D uring the 1920s and '30s, the Polish-Russian painter Tamara de Lempicka was a sensation in Paris for her hyper-realistic art deco nudes, her Greta Garbo good looks and her scandalous bisexual liaisons. Her bold, stylized portraits brought her notoriety and wealth. Today, some of them are in the collections of Jack Nicholson and Madonna . Her 1927 painting of a sultry Italian American prostitute sold at auction in November for a $8.48 million .
In a stroke of felicitous timing, this painting, “Le Reve (Rafaela sur fond vert),” graces the cover of Ellis Avery’s new novel, “The Last Nude,” a fictionalized biography of Lempicka, an artist who epitomized the Jazz Age. As in her first novel, “The Teahouse Fire,” set in Japan in the late 19th century, Avery deftly re-creates a lost period. Here, she embellishes the details of Lempicka’s year-long affair with Rafaela Fano, the 17-year-old, dark-eyed beauty on the novel’s cover whom Lempicka painted several times after meeting her in the Bois de Boulogne, a haunt for Parisian prostitutes.
The first and longest part of the novel is told from Rafaela’s point of view. Rafaela, who grew up in the Bronx and is now making ends meet by sleeping with Spanish grandfathers, doesn’t need coaxing to get into the glamorous blonde’s green Bugatti. She finds herself whisked away to Lempicka’s studio, where the artist seduces her almost immediately.
Avery weaves Lempicka’s biography into the conversations Rafaela has with the artist during the long sessions when she poses, “a stupefied Ingres odalisque.” The model learns of Lempicka’s privileged youth and her determination to attain the lifestyle to which her aunt and uncle introduced her after she left Warsaw as a teenager to live with them in St. Petersburg. Smitten by the artist and her hedonism, Rafaela imagines she and Lempicka will “marry.” But she soon learns that Lempicka’s avaricious sensuality precludes loyalty. She watches in awe as Lempicka manipulates her most avid patrons, including Baron Raoul Kuffner, who owns half of Central Europe.
Lempicka tells Rafaela spicy tales of her libertine life and sweet-talks the naive young model into participating in participating in publicity stunts, such as posing in a diaphanous peacock costume for the mannish Duchesse de la Salle’s party, at which guests sip absinthe and gawk at models in risque tableaux.
The narrative turns on complications that arise when two of her suitors vie for Lempicka’s Rafaela paintings. Intertwined subplots involve both Rafaela’s California roommate and a former Chicago sportswriter who becomes involved in one of the rivals’ stratagems.
The novel’s final, short section is told from Lempicka’s perspective. She’s in her 80s now, living in Cuernavaca, Mexico, reliving the triumphs of her early career and bemoaning the changing aesthetic that cast her out of the artistic mainstream. With unsteady hands, she’s attempting to paint a facsimile of one of the signature Rafaelas that brought her renown over 50 years ago.
The book suffers a bit from a whiff of artificiality, perhaps because of Avery’s desire to evoke the campiness of the period. And it’s too bad the publisher didn’t include reproductions of Lempicka’s paintings, which Avery so skillfully describes. This is, however, a compulsively readable novel that brings to life a diva whose biography is as titillating as her paintings.
Lang is former senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas.