Tamara de Lempicka

Intermezzo 1: Lilo

We speak of women artists, we find we share a love for Frida Kahlo, Tamara de Lempicka, Remedios Varo.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of Suzy Solidor



Daniel Salvatore Schiffer 

From Daniel Salvatore Schiffer, « L’expression du dandy: Phénoménologie du corps artistique » in Le dandysme, dernier éclat d’héroïsme (Paris: PUF, 2010) pp. 201-210.

This passage translated by Richard Jonathan.

Early in the 20th century, in the period 1910-1930, the ‘artist as body’ appeared. Examples include Tamara de Lempicka, whose very Art Déco aesthetic manifests itself with a rare meticulousness in her highly flamboyant portraits that evoke, with their distant echo of the Pre-Raphaelites, characters—both masculine and feminine—whose silhouettes and poses are very dandyish.

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It is from Baudelaire, in literature, and Kierkegaard, in philosophy, that the definition of art as art comes into effect, no longer regarding only the work of art but the artist himself—or better still, his life—as a work of art. And thus emerged, in terms of aesthetics, a new theme practically unknown until then: lifestyle as an art form, if not a full-blown work of art. This is the primary characteristic of dandyism.

This way of making art and life coincide, or more exactly, of elevating life’s pleasures to the level of artistic beauty—its supreme value as much as its intrinsic dignity—is of course what Oscar Wilde advocated in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Indeed, he has Lord Henry say, for example, ‘now and then a complex personality took the place and assumed the office of art, was indeed, in its way, a real work of art’. Directly echoing this, Wilde, in Chapter 11 of the novel, enlarges at length on the luxurious, refined and cultivated life led by the young Dorian Gray: ‘And, certainly, to him life itself was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation.’

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Tamara de Lempicka, Salvador Dali and Leonor Fini constitute a trio of the 20th-century’s top ‘dandy-artists’, defined as artists who adopt a stance toward themselves and the world that enables them to nurture their individuality, their ‘secret self’, under cover of the persona they project into the world. For the dandy, as for the clown, what they reveal is designed to conceal. Beyond the apparent flamboyance of these artists, then, one has to be sensitive to their ‘secret self’ to gain a fuller appreciation of the ‘personality’ expressed in the work. In other words, one must endeavour to understand how the life and the work interact in the mythologizing of the self.


Tamara de Lempicka…

…in the 1930s

Salvador Dali and Tamara de Lempicka, New York City, 1941


Though in France Surrealism had won the battle for the avant-garde by the late 1920s, it was still struggling to gain a stronghold in America during the war years, and Tamara, who during her early years in the United States had executed several fairly successful Surrealistic paintings, might have done well to continue in that direction. Her quick wit and pleasure in the absurd, mentioned repeatedly by her friends, lent themselves to the genre, and those same qualities won her the loyalty of Salvador Dali, one of the few artist friends from Paris whom she continued to see in America. His 1934 painting Enigma of William Tell depicted Lenin’s exposed buttocks with a giant phallus (parodying a rocket) inserted between his thighs. Deeply offended by the insult to one of their heroes, other Surrealists were thereafter suspicious of Dali’s politics, further strengthening Tamara’s conviction that Dali was worth taking seriously.


From Laura Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) p. 222


The two friends [Tamara de Lempicka and Victor Contreras] talked of art, with Tamara expressing her enthusiasm for Leonor Fini, the Argentine painter living in Mexico City.


From Laura Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) p. 327.

Leonor Fini



Laura Claridge

From Laura Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) pp. 2-3

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of Ira P., 1930

Named by her mother for the heroine of one of Mikhail Lermontov’s poems, either Tamara or The Demon, she fit the expectations that both comparisons to passionate women suggested. Sexually voracious, theatrical, stylish, smart, and talented, she was among the century’s most dramatic and imposing personalities. Whether it be her careless sexual affairs with any man or woman she considered beautiful, her glamorous parties, complete with drugs and naked servers, or her refusal to provide information about her past, the aura of decadence that came naturally to her ensured that she played always at center stage.

Although her paintings of the 1920s had helped create the image of the modern woman, Marie Antoinette’s sense of entitlement, order, and self-indulgence were every bit as much a part of Tamara’s character as twentieth-century values were. Her complexity extended to her painting; perhaps that is why she was neglected by those who defined the Modernist canon. She painted in iconoclastic, dramatically modern styles, while she also pledged allegiance to Giovanni Bellini, Pontormo, Antonello da Messina, and Caravaggio, in color and in brushstroke. She boldly painted the nude female with a lover’s eye, yet she refuted classification by gender. She refused to court the avant-garde but defiantly participated in café society, even when it was clear that such frivolous associations caused other artists to underrate her talent.

Tamara de Lempicka, The Sleeper, 1930

Tamara de Lempicka, Les Jeunes filles, 1930

In life and in her work, she did not play with the idea of depth versus surface. And it is here that she fits, after all, within Modernism’s boundaries. But art historians have failed to note when rejecting Tamara from their definitions of Modernism that her high artifice rehearses a major Modernist tenet. This artifice consists of a narcissism so extreme that it becomes its own subject, constituting in the process a self-contained, self-referential painterly sphere.




Selections from Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’ in Against Interpretation  (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966)

Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization. Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not. The best example is in Art Nouveau, the most typical and fully developed Camp style. Art Nouveau objects, typically, convert one thing into something else: the lighting fixtures in the form of flowering plants, the living room which is really a grotto. A remarkable example: the Paris Métro entrances designed by Hector Guimard in the late 1890s in the shape of cast-iron orchid stalks. A full analysis of Art Nouveau would scarcely, of course, equate it with Camp. But such an analysis cannot ignore what in Art Nouveau allows it to be experienced as Camp. Art Nouveau is full of ‘content,’ even of a political-moral sort; it was a revolutionary movement in the arts, spurred on by a Utopian vision (somewhere between William Morris and the Bauhaus group) of an organic politics and taste. Yet there is also a feature of the Art Nouveau objects which suggests a disengaged, unserious, ‘aesthete’s’ vision. This tells us something important about Art Nouveau—and about what the lens of Camp, which blocks out content, is.

Victor Horta, Interior of Hôtel Tassel, 1894

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As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. Allied to the Camp taste for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn’t: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.


Tamara’s proudest social conquest was her rapidly developing friendship with her idol, Greta Garbo; she claimed to have played tennis with her, though no one can recall Tamara being much of a player. For the next three years, however, she referred to Garbo so frequently that the actress seemed to be a fixation for the painter. She announced to the press that she was doing Garbo’s portrait, but none has been located. The physical resemblance that hotel guests had supposedly seen between the two women seven years earlier predisposed Tamara to admire the actress, and the parts she had played further impressed her. In 1935, Garbo starred in Anna Karenina; in 1937 she played opposite Tamara’s friend Charles Boyer as Napoleon, the artist’s hero, in Conquest; and in 1939 she starred in Ninotchka, a satire on Bolshevism that delighted the painter.

Perhaps she mentally projected herself into Garbo’s place. Material for such a fantasy was close at hand in the form of a sketch she had done of Charles Boyer in 1930. Since Tamara rarely painted from a photograph, preferring to work with the live model, she must have known Boyer at least ten years before she moved to Hollywood. Pictures of the two on the Hollywood sets of the early forties show them with intimate, almost smirking smiles, suggesting that they were already well acquainted.


From Laura Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) pp. 223
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Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater. Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘person’ and ‘thing.’) But all style, that is, artifice, is, ultimately, epicene. Life is not stylish. Neither is nature.

The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers. Camp is the paintings of Carlo Crivelli, with their real jewels and trompe-l’oeil insects and cracks in the masonry. Camp is the outrageous aestheticism of Steinberg’s six American movies with Dietrich, all six, but especially the last, The Devil Is a Woman. In Camp there is often something démesuré in the quality of the ambition, not only in the style of the work itself. Gaudí’s lurid and beautiful buildings in Barcelona are Camp not only because of their style but because they reveal –most notably in the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia—the ambition on the part of one man to do what it takes a generation, a whole culture to accomplish.

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Hertz-Juran, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, 1958

Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century’s surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture. The dandy was overbred. His posture was disdain, or else ennui. He sought rare sensations, undefiled by mass appreciation. (Models: Des Esseintes in Huysmans’ À Rebours, Valéry’s Monsieur Teste.) He was dedicated to ‘good taste.’ The connoisseur of Camp has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses. Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp—dandyism in the age of mass culture—makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.


From Laura Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) p. 2

Tamara de Lempicka painted in iconoclastic, dramatically modern styles, while she also pledged allegiance, in color and in brushstroke, to Pontormo…

Pontormo, Venus and Cupid, c.1532-34

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, c.1480

Giovanni Bellini…


Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist, 1602-03

Antonello da Messina, The Virgin Annunciate, c.1477

and Antonello da Messina.



Edouard Manet

Gustave Moreau

John Everett Millais

Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Gustave Courbet

François Boucher

Paul Klee

Pablo Picasso

Henri Rousseau

Tamara de Lempicka

Nicolas de Staël

Egon Schiele

Hans Holbein, Younger

Vincent Van Gogh

Hieronymus Bosch

Caspar David Friedrich

Leda and the Swan

Andy Warhol

Remedios Varo

Salvador Dali

Claude Monet

William Morris

Paul Delvaux

Frida Kahlo

Dorothea Tanning

Leonor Fini