By Judith Brown
The famous painting Tamara in a Green Bugatti, otherwise known as the Autoportrait (1929), is an iconic work by artist Tamara De Lempicka (1898–1980). It is symbolic of Lempicka’s Art Deco style, elucidating many of its unique features championed by the artist throughout her career. As a portrait of herself, Lempicka’s independence as a female artist is paramount.
Tamara in a Green Bugatti (1929)
Poised and relaxed, she sits at the wheel of a Bugatti racing car. This painting was printed as a cover by the German magazine Die Dame, revelling in the independence of women. The publication showcased Lempicka’s revolutionary art and inventiveness as one of the forerunners of the Art Deco movement. Art Deco was not only a technique but a form of perception in relation to the tangible world, with its influence stretching beyond art to interior design and architecture. Features included bold colours, the use of symbols and geometric shapes. The colours here are quite subdued yet pronounced. Her lips are unmistakably red, the car is emerald and the wind-swept scarf beige. There is an emphasis on glamour and fashion, and this marked Lempicka’s style.
As an image, the painting is representative of the free and indulgent lifestyle of the 1920’s. Looking at it from the perspective of Lempicka as a female artist, it clearly conveys a message of liberation. This derives from the artist’s manoeuvring of the portrait’s subject into an independent entity of her own. Lempicka subverts the power dynamic between the subject and the viewer, as the figure is confronting our gaze. Lempicka essentially was reformatting portraiture into a form of seeing that reflects something of ourselves and our world. In addition to a reversal of interpretation, she was engaged in new techniques. Theatrical, photographic style lighting was employed in her works, alongside the characteristic boldness of colour that Art Deco exhibits. She was edging closer to technological editing effects.
Figure de jeune femme (1967)
Lempicka’s birthplace is said to be unknown, although most likely Warsaw, Moscow or St Petersberg and her real name was Maria Gorska. Her portraits act as a mirror, enabling us to transcend time and space. They contain a narrative and storyline which, in Lempicka’s case, may unravel according to individual interpretation. She did not attach conditions to the perception of her work, neither did she have one single way of seeing and her main focus appears to be infusing traditional portraiture with a modern approach.
A queen of Art Deco, she may have been, but she was also a master of reinvention. In both in her personal and professional life she pushed boundaries. As a child, she spent time travelling through Switzerland and Italy and having acquired a love and skill for art, she developed a passion for the Italian Renaissance. However, despite being a vigorous enthusiast of all things new, she still maintained an adherence to classical traditions. Her entrance into the art scene occurred after her move to Paris, which took place after a dramatic turn of events. After marrying her husband in 1916 in St Petersberg, he was arrested by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. It is said that Lempicka managed to have him released, hence the move to Paris, and eventually the two were reunited there.
This period coincided with the first ever exhibitions of her work in the Paris salons. She entered the art world at a time when creativity was eclectic and on the brink of social transition. This was a time of explosive expression and Lempicka was keen to embrace exciting opportunities. Fashion was becoming more fantastical and Lempicka’s style was influenced by artistic movements prior to Art Deco, such as Cubism and Fauvism. By blending her influences together, Lempicka was able to create an aesthetic that was uniquely hers.
Jeune fille en verte (1927-30)
The cubist aspect of her compositions is especially evident in Jeune fille en verte. Shapes with strongly defined ridges and bold lines characterise the painting. During her artistic training she had been introduced to forward thinking artists who were incorporating elements of graphic design into their work. There certainly is a modern feel to Lempicka’s portraits and her originality underscores this.
Lempicka painted portraits of individuals from the elite circle in which she worked, including Arlette Boucard, the daughter of a renowned doctor. By the 1930’s she had obtained notoriety as a painter of the most famous in society, reflecting the stylised world that they lived in to her audience.
Arlette Boucard (1928)
Not only did Lempicka find success as an artist in a male dominated profession, but she managed to attract a wide audience with her innovative works, defining her career and breaking convention. Lempicka said that her goal was “never to copy” and we can safely say that she never did that.
Mademoiselle Poum Rachou (1928)