Art Doc of the Week | Tamara de Lempicka

“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.” – Tamara de Lempicka

Born to an elite, wealthy Russian family at the end of the 19th century, Tamara de Lempicka didn’t start (or end) life as what you’d think of as an outsider. Her family’s great fortune initially shielded her from the turmoil in the streets as the masses of ordinary Russians starved and revolution was fomenting. It was only after her parents fled Russia, the Bolsheviks arrested her beloved husband (and she was forced to exchange sexual favors for his release), and she fell into poverty that she came anywhere near what most would recognize as a marginalized existence. But even that was short-lived, as she worked hard to turn herself into a self-made, fabulously wealthy artist whose fans and collectors now include Madonna.

Tamara de Lempicka works on a portrait of her first husband, with her painting of the Duchess de la Salle in the background.

Tamara de Lempicka works on a portrait of her first husband, with her painting of the Duchess de la Salle in the background.

This 2004 BBC program hosted by Andrew Graham Dixon is a fast-moving overview of de Lempicka’s life and career, and if it might leave you hungry for more substantive analysis and historicizing of both, it’s an excellent primer. Dixon’s informative voiceover is supplemented with biographers and art historians who offer succinct insights. In noting that the artist’s own life was just so much clay to be molded by her hands, biographer Laura Claridge note , “She lied continually throughout her life,” inflating and contouring reality to flatter herself.

To that end, she was a shrewd craftswoman about her own persona and brand, unabashedly pursuing a life of luxury that drew withering disdain from both the art world (the Dadaists among them) and the left-leaning intellectuals of the 1920s and 30s. But though her public image was one of shallowness and flightiness, she was very serious about her work, from her days as a student of Cubist artist André Lhote’s neo-cubism, which she loved and absorbed and synthesized with classical influences to create her own singular Art Deco style, to her desperate attempts to recreate herself after her Art Deco work fell out of vogue.

Tamara de Lempicka

The interviewed experts look at de Lempicka through feminist filters that underscore how forward she was on issues of sex, gender, and sexuality (she was openly and unapologetically bisexual) as they honestly assess both her work (her later period stuff is almost roundly dismissed) and her failure to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers. (Among those experts is her granddaughter, who now helps oversee her estate.)

Throughout the half hour clip, example after example of her art is shown (both the good and the bad) and it’s gorgeous and gorgeously layered work. And unwittingly, the mini-doc corrects a relatively recent slight of de Lempicka. Clips from Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video, in which the strip club façade is modeled after a famous de Lempicka work, are shown, but her influence there has long been noted. What’s been less acknowledged is her influence on another classic Madonna music video – that for “Express Yourself.” When that clip was released, its nods toward Fritz Lang’s 1927 film classic Metropolis were immediately noted. Almost never cited, however, were the many ways it was also influenced by de Lempicka. This documentary corrects that oversight, which is fitting on many levels – not only underscoring the OG Material Girl’s influence on Ms. Ciccone, but bringing her influence from under that of a masculine shadow.

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Previously on Art Doc of the Week: