New York

Tamara de Lempicka, La belle Rafaela en vert (The Beautiful Rafaela in Green), ca. 1927, oil on canvas, 15 × 24".

Tamara de Lempicka, La belle Rafaela en vert (The Beautiful Rafaela in Green), ca. 1927, oil on canvas, 15 × 24".

Tamara de Lempicka

Kosciuszko Projects

“Lempicka was a liar, a snob and a fraud from the off,” began the British art critic Waldemar Januszczak in his poison-pen Sunday Times review of her exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 2004. Rarely has an artist inspired such moral condemnation and righteous disdain as Tamara de Lempicka, the rappel à l’ordre society painter who objectified, perhaps more than any other artist, the cold, metallic libido of Art Deco. Despite, or perhaps because of, her enduring popularity (she is the subject of several biographies, a stage play, and a forthcoming Broadway musical), major museum collections and art-history books have mostly steered clear of her art, its adamantine glamour tainted with the bad smell of mercenary kitsch. Kosciuszko Projects’ “The Many Faces of Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980),” the first US show of her work in almost sixty years, doesn’t militate against this reputation so much as give it a #feminist ideological gloss. The exhibition brochure hails de Lempicka as a “Queen of Instagram” avant la lettre and celebrates the “strong ego and the moxie she needed to thrive in a male-dominated art world.” Her bisexuality is insinuated—judiciously skipped over are the R-rated details regarding her coke parties with André Gide or her transactional, abortive liaison with the Italian poet and irredentist Gabriele d’Annunzio. (The affair was unconsummated, though the proto-fascist revolutionary—by his own randy telling—“rubbed my you know what up and down her splendid arm, as country barbers do when they sharpen their razors on a leather strop.”)

There is an undeniable Randian aura to de Lempicka’s art (which traded profitably on dreams of hedonism and indomitability) and her life (which began comfortably in czarist Warsaw and ended with her dying a baroness in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where her ashes were scattered into the crater of the Popocatépetl volcano). Emigrating to Paris in 1918, the White Russian shrewdly apprenticed herself to the decorative painter Maurice Denis and later to André Lhote, one of the head cheerleaders for the gentrified Cubism of the années folles. She assimilated the style’s faceted planes to a restored, architectonic figuration, contriving a worldly but compromised modernism that flattered the decaying aristocracy as well as the ascendant nouveau riche—the classes that became her primary patrons. (“I was the first woman to paint cleanly,” de Lempicka swaggered, “and that was the basis of my success. . . . My painting was attractive.”) Yet this show didn’t always put her best face forward. Presumably confronted with a scarcity of major loans (de Lempicka’s paintings “belong primarily to private collectors,” the brochure disclaims, “who are reluctant to see the most impressive decorations of their residences be absent for long months”), the curator Bartek Remisko padded “The Many Faces” with lesser works: tentative flower studies from her girlhood, neo-Renaissance portraits painted during her wartime exile in the United States (interesting nonetheless for their stilted piousness), and chintzy, touristy gouaches from her final years in Mexico.

But a handful of the works here flaunted the “perverse Ingrism” that was de Lempicka’s calling card. This style was nowhere more apparent than in the rubbery, nipple-less odalisque of La belle Rafaela en vert (The Beautiful Rafaela in Green), ca. 1927, one of several Kertészian nudes de Lempicka painted of a sex worker—known today only by her first name—who became the artist’s lover and modeled for several of her paintings that year. Coiffed in celluloid ringlets of red and blond, the heavy-lidded protagonists of Les jeunes filles (The Young Ladies), ca. 1930, nuzzle against a backdrop of glassy skyscrapers. There is an alluring Sapphic dandyism here, but more significant and unnerving is the hardening of flesh into armor, conjuring a chimera of a total, invulnerable exteriority. What de Lempicka’s apologists and haters both must repress is this simultaneous stirring of and steeling against desire, this weaponization of style. Are these the fantasies of a reactionary mind? Perhaps. But de Lempicka’s art, with its ruthless perversity and twisted innovation, doesn’t want our solidarity or our love—it already has our fascination and our envy.