Design for Passion: The female form in Art Deco
The Art Deco style was the genre during the 1920s and 1930s affecting the decorative arts, fine arts and fashion (Lucie-Smith, 1996). Throughout this period it was moment for women’s clothing fashions. The portraits of Polish-born Tamara de Lempicka elaborated on the trend as a painter of people mainly in the smart social circles in which she moved. She was penniless when she fled to Paris with her husband and daughter. It was then she resolved her talents of artistry would establish a successful career in Paris.
To represent her painting style she elaborated on distinctive streamlined elegance with a sense of chic decadence, often compared to the cubism of Leger (sometime called Soft Cubism). She was better than anyone else at representing the Art Deco style in painting. Her works exhibited the true meaning of the Art Deco style and affiliated the passion for design that women had in their life’s turning point (de Lempicka, 1998). It can be said that she is probably the most famous painter of the art deco period.
The painting style created by de Lempicka was as glamorous as her subject matter. Her instructor Andre Lhote did not realize the subtle syntheses of inspiration she portrayed. The use of a plastic metaphor which Tamara used time and again in her artistic output can be characterized by the haughty expression typical of a certain caste, or in her nudes which are allegories of lasciviousness. She used a trademark combination of soft, rounded forms set against architectural lines and shapes that reflected a new sophisticated urbanity to those she painted in highly mannered portraits. Her other main subjects included erotic nudes and still life of calla lilies. Her bold technique and palette rapidly won her acclaim as the quintessential Art Deco artist (Blondell, 2004).
Art Deco design was above all modern that exemplified the boundless potential of a newly industrialized world. The characterizations of Art Deco include the use of materials such as sharkskin, zebra skin, zigzag and stepped forms, bold and sweeping curves, chevron patterns, and sunburst motif. The sunburst motif was used in such varied contexts as a lady’s shoe. It was a mainstream in consumerism that was stressed in the great fashion magazines as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to advertise the emergence of the New Woman in American society.
It was argued that Art Deco functioned as a trademark for popular notions of femininity during a time when women were said to be the consumers of the average household. A genre of the time it appealed to women and was used as a selling point for cosmetics, clothing, home furnishings, jewelry, and art objects. The image that femininity would dominate the American imagination for the future inspired consumerism (Fischer, 2003).
The corset was definitively eliminated making the flat and square dresses of the 1920s an ideal canvas to display motifs of the Art Deco period. Skirts were shortened and the female figure became formless and androgynous (sexless) – the waistline dropped to the hips or simply ceased to exist. In the 1930s the waistline moved to its natural position. Nylon, satin, silk and crepe the most prevalent of materials used to make fine figure defining dresses. Fabric was cut diagonally to take advantage of its elasticity to show formation of what it covered. Skirts were made longer while the legs were allowed to be seen via long slits in the dresses and the shoulders were broadened by padded shoulder inserts (Lussier, 2003).
In Portrait of a Young Girl in a Green Dress, Tamara explicitly demonstrates her visual of the fashion of the times, sleek and seductive (Lucie-Smith). Girl in Green with Gloves, probably her most famous painting epitomizes her style showing the fabric and hair combined into sharp lines and flowing curves with the entire form strongly dimensional yet remaining abstract and modern.
The Art Deco of the 20s, with its geometric motifs and bright, bold colors superlative represents the best and purest forms of the decorative art period. Reaching its bold point between 1925 through 1935, the classical, symmetrical, rectilinear style of Art Deco, drew inspiration from other art movements such as Cubism, Futurism, and influence of the Bauhaus and became the dominant art form of Paris between 1920 through 1930. Tamara deLempicka was the artist who pursued the Arts Decoratifs style, derived from the World’s fair held in 1925, formerly titled the Exposition Internationales des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes that showcased French luxury goods (Wikipedia, 2003).
A 1925auto portrait, Tamara in the Green Bugatti was an oil painting on wood. Tamara was dressed in a bright yellow with black hat, matching the color of the vehicle. The painting came about when a magazine editor was overwhelmed by the driver’s style. The driver, later was learned, to be de Lempicka herself. The editor had left a calling card on the windshield asking the yellow clad woman to contact her. Die Dame, Germany’s leading fashion magazine, then commissioned a self portrait in the car for the magazine’s cover. The result was one of de Lemplicka’s best known works wherein she mixes cold, hard textures with luxurious, decadent sensual imagery. A point of interest on the matter was that Tamara NEVER owned a green Bugatti. The auto portrait was an icon of the era. The painting is said to represent the newly discovered freedom of women of the day (Paloma).
Sexy, modern and unabashedly consumer-oriented was the new Art Deco style. Motifs were borrowed from Japan, Africa, ancient Egtyptian and Mayan cultures to create novel visual effects (Benton, 2003). French pochoir prints from the glorious Art Deco era presented woman’s fashion designs in their most original era. The clothing was revolutionary from designers such as Charles Worth, Jean Patou, Paul Poiret, Lucien Lelong and Joseph Paquin (Schiffer, 1998). Erte was an artist who received his fame by his drawings in Harper’s Bazaar’s magazine for 22 yrs.
His covers for the magazine shaped the entire modern tradition of fashion drawing. Erte (name derived from his initials R. T. – Romaine de Tirtoff) also designed sets for plays and musicals most noted are the costumes and stage sets for the Folies-Bergere in Paris (Blum, 1976). He was perhaps the most appealing of artists at the time, called attention to the sleekness of style giving emphasis to lineal definition and bold color. (Fischer). The jewelry from the era exploded with color, drama of form and juxtaposition of texture and contour. Designs included buckles, clips, belts, mirrors, pendants, cigarette cases, rings, chains, necklaces, watchbands, brooches, studs and charms (Raulet, 2002).
The aesthetic of Art Deco was most radical in the late 1920s at which female stars as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy donned lavish Art Deco fashions. De Lempicka herself received acclaim for her aloof Garboesque beauty, her parties, and her love affairs. Her beauty and opinionated nature also increased her celebrity (de Lempicka). The style declined as a growing conservatism challenged the feminist advances of an earlier generation. The Art Deco woman was once an object of desire but she then regressed toward demeaning caricatures and pantomimes of unbridled sexuality (Fischer).
To artists she (de Lempicka) appeared to be an upper-class dilettante, and to the nervous haute bourgeoisie she seemed arrogant and depraved, comments Laura Claridge. Her beauty and opinionated nature increased her celebrity as photographs of the period show a sleek woman whose lethargic-eyed mystique challenged that of Greta Garbo.
De Lempicka was a very physical person. She often slept with the people she painted, or those who sat for her. They were both male and female. Her first lesbian affair was said to be with Ira Perrot who modeled for her and took her to Italy where she discovered paintings of Botticelli and Messina. It was the period of time in which she began to attend lesbian parties. Her creativeness went as far as the tastefully arrangement of food on the body of a nude woman. Thereafter, she would then slowly she eat her midnight meal (de Lempicka). The artist pursued older men as social companions, but slept with younger and more handsome men. She was often seen caressing a working-class boy one night and a woman the next. Her adventures inspired her artwork.
An overview to her painting of Adam and Eve, her daughter Kizette states, The model walked across the room and picked up an apple from the bowl to satiate her hunger. Tamara then says: ‘Stop! I have an inspiration. I have before me the vision of Adam and Eve.’ She then went out into the street and nearby saw a policeman on his beat. He was young and handsome. ‘Monsieur, I am an artist and I need a model for my painting.’ She brought him into the studio and said ‘you are Adam, here is your Eve’ completing her motivation. Among the unique aspects of her style is the overt lesbianism that informs it, especially in her female nudes, i.e. Two Friends, Spring, and The Girls. The implication of sexuality between the females is subtle yet obvious.
Tamara Gorska de Lempicka was married first to Tadeusz Lempicki a Russion lawyer and socialite and then to Baron Raoul Huffner with whom she moved to America. Being a bisexual woman, de Lempicka’s works reflects a glorification of the female form and vignettes of female life. Seated Nude (1923) exploits her depiction of women in which she sets the tone of a powerful, curvy, and slab-faced image. Depicted during the Jazz Age de Lempicka’s art expel a riot of color combined with the sharpness of Cubism making them seem to explode from their frames and grab our attention (Charlish, 2004). The sexy, bedroom-eyed women in stylish dresses are rendered in haunting poses that seem to mirror her life through her art.
The Orange Turban of which Tamara produced eight versions in her lifetime, shows the influence of the Dutch and Flemish masters that she absorbed while studying at the Louvre. Independent publisher Mani de Li of Modern Art – A Skeptical View, opinions that Tamara succeeds in portraits that have an aim similar to Picasso’s failures with hers being more original, complete, better drawn, colored and composed. The paintings never contain those scratchy areas of flat schmiery ugliness and unfinish so common in even the best of Picasso’s, he contends. From the pages of women’s magazines to the salons and counters of department stores to the set of design of Hollywood films, the Art Deco style was used to market modernity and elegance (Fischer).
Tamara sold her portrait art to the rich aristocracy of Paris that fetched huge prices. She refused to comment on the fascism around her. It was between the wars, that she painted portraits of writers, entertainers, artists, scientists, industrialists, and many of Eastern Europe’s exiled nobility (Lucie-Smith). She had a choice to do carnival or festive art, and chose the festive (Boje, 2001). Peter Plagens, an art critic from Newsweek, referred to Tamara as practically forgotten with her production of almost soft porn. And he further stated that Tamara was the end product, not the producer of art that influences other artists (Claridge, 1999). After a threat of a Second World War, Tamara left Paris to go to Hollywood. There she became the Favorite Artist of the Hollywood Stars. The 1950s and 1960s phased out Deco Art until in a 1966 exhibition in Paris it resumed its interest.
She had changed her style to abstract art in the 1960s. Her works were created then with a spatula with her output seemingly out of fashion. De Lempicka’s earlier works began to rise in the 1970s and by the 1990s she once again became a stylish icon. Feminism’s emphasis on unearthing sidelined women had played a part in her revitalization as well. The liberation of gay women has made her the prophetic, in -house painter of lipstick lesbianism (Charlish).
Today de Lempicka’s work still is connected to Hollywood with singer/actress Madonna and actor Jack Nicholson being the most avid contemporary collectors of her paintings. Her paintings were rediscovered by the world (Neret, Gilles, 1992). Tamara de Lempicka achieved her notoriety and fame several times during her lifetime and remains popular today for her highly sexualized art deco portraits. The qualities of decadence and hedonism that caused critics of the 1960s and 1970s to dismiss her work are those traits that now show new appreciation, comments Elizabeth Ashburn, Professor and Head of the School of Art in the College of Fine Arts at the University of South Wales, Austrailia.
Tamara de Lempicka chose her teachers well. She learned the use of simple lines and a smooth finish from Maurice Denis, from who she had her first painting lesson at the Academe Ranson. She learned the neoclassical modification of cubism from Lhote in Paris. She learned the clear, glowing colors and imperious yet powerful interpretation of the female form and execution of the society portrait from Ingres (Charlish). When combined, the three distinct traits of her tutors were expelled though her own unique style in which she was able to bring across the passion of design.
De Lempicka is the true demonstrator of the female form in Art Deco painting. The icon of Art Deco ceased her works after the death of her husband in 1962. She moved to Mexico and died in her sleep in 1980 only to leave behind her ashes strewn over the crater of Mt. Popocateptl along with her now valued works of art depicting one of the most fascinating periods of art history in which she displayed the liberty of the woman of her time.
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