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New Angle on a Symbol of Art Deco : Painting: Tamara de Lempicka's portraits of the '20s and '30s leisure class are finding revived interest.

September 23, 1994|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTREAL — Tamara de Lempicka's life personified European Jazz Age hedonism and her Art Deco portraits of idle aristocrats, voluptuaries and hangers-on to the Continental smart set were emblematic of the era.

Then Hitler consumed Europe and De Lempicka moved to Beverly Hills. As she was exiled from her milieu, her talent seemingly evaporated, and her reputation with it. Now, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has mounted a large exhibition of the late painter's works, the first North American retrospective of an artist whom museum director Pierre Theberge describes as "an essential part of the great machinery of the 1920s and '30s."

The De Lempicka exhibition of 57 paintings follows a revival of interest among collectors, especially in Hollywood. In March, an Italian collector bought De Lempicka's "Adam and Eve" (1932) at auction from Barbra Streisand for $2 million. Streisand had paid $135,000 for it 10 years earlier. That work and others still in Streisand's collection are not in the exhibition, but three paintings owned by Jack Nicholson are included. The Montreal exhibition runs to Oct. 2 and will not travel.

Theberge's idea for a De Lempicka retrospective dates from 1991, when the museum mounted "The 1920s, Age of the Metropolis." Three of De Lempicka's portraits were displayed then, and one was used as the show's signature work.

"In that context, she really appeared as an artist who defined the period, in terms of style and attitude, in a certain toughness," Theberge said in an interview. Echoes of her style can be found in German portraits of the same era by Christian Schad and Wilhelm Schnarrenberger.

Art scholars and critics are divided on De Lempicka, to say the least. Many regard her as an artist who merely reflected her times rather than helped to define them. And her post-European work inevitably diminishes her reputation.

Theberge makes clear that he does not equate De Lempicka with Picasso or with succeeding art geniuses who flowered in the 1920s. Rather, he puts her in the company of Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo, Coco Chanel and Colette, those who placed their distinctive stamp on European society between the wars.

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The sloe-eyed decadence reflected in "Les jeunes filles" ("Young Girls," 1929), the portrait of Montmartre nightclub owner Suzy Solidor in front of a Cubist skyline (1933) and the confident expression in a 1932 self-portrait behind the wheel of a green Bugatti are veritable advertisements for the era. Certainly, art in the De Lempicka style pops up across North America in billboards, signs, posters and other suggestions of the period.

Also contributing to the De Lempicka revival may be a contemporary resonance in her persona: independent, unabashed in her sexuality, self-promoting, ambitious. Sound familiar? Consider this: Madonna is a collector and has used images from De Lempicka in her music videos.

"It's astounding how contemporary she is to today's sensibility," said Theberge, who added that, in the 1920s and '30s, "you can count on the fingers of your hand the number of women artists who were successful."

"I live life in the margins of society and the rules of normal society don't apply in the margins," De Lempicka said, according to "Passion by Design," a 1987 biography co-authored by the artist's daughter, Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall, and Charles Phillips.

The artist was born Tamara Gorska in Warsaw around the turn of the century--the precise date is uncertain. She summered in St. Petersburg and married a well-to-do Russian lawyer, Tadeusz de Lempicki, in 1916. Two years later, the couple fled the Bolshevik Revolution for Paris.

There, they moved into the circle of exiled Russian nobility and other out-of-work aristocrats. It was there that De Lempicka took up painting. The teacher who had the greatest influence on her was Andre Lhote, who sought to apply the principles of Cubism to traditional subjects such as landscapes, nudes and portraits.

Seriously ambitious in her art, the tall, blond De Lempicka managed to turn her headlong lifestyle into a business asset. Her notoriety attracted clients; clients became patrons, and lovers. And there were countless lovers, male and female. Her visits to the estate of Italian Fascist poet Gabriele d'Annunzio inspired a gossipy account by a servant that decades later was transformed into the audience-participation play "Tamara." The play opened in Los Angeles in 1984 and ran for the better part of a decade.

Tadeusz de Lempicki divorced her in 1928. She painted a portrait of him that same year, leaving unfinished the left hand, which would have carried the wedding band. In 1933 she married Baron Raoul Kuffner on the understanding that she could continue to live as she pleased.

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