Tamara de Lempicka – Creating Herself

17 November 2022

What happens when I look at a painting I’ve seen thousands times printed on serviettes, notebooks and menu covers? Do my eyes gloss over it, or quite the opposite – I’m so familiar with it, I can always find something new to focus on?

Text: Agnieszka Drotkiewicz

I ask myself this question whenever I look at Tamara de Lempicka’s (Tamara Łempicka) self-portrait Tamara in a Green Bugatti. Her blonde locks tumble from under a leather helmet, her grey scarf flows in the wind and she grips the steering wheel in a gloved hand. Tamara looks cool and determined, her ruby-red lips unsmiling. “If there is a single image that encapsulates art deco, it is Tamara de Lempicka’s self-portrait Tamara in a Green Bugatti. It was commissioned for the cover of the German magazine Die Dame«, which defined her as ‘a symbol of women’s liberation’,” writes wrote Fiona MacCarthy in The Guardian«. She portrays herself as a personification of the epoch – cold beauty, independence, wealth, inaccessibility and momentum. But was de Lempicka’s life really like that? She certainly depicted it as such, portraying herself as living the high life. She famously said, “There are no miracles, there is only what you make”. Her own Bugatti was yellow rather than green – and in fact it wasn’t even a Bugatti but a small Renault... Does it matter, though? She played around with the facts of her life to create collages, to enchant, to seduce.

Her life was a great story in itself. She was born in Moscow – or could it have been Warsaw? – to a wealthy family. She was raised in Warsaw by her mother and grandparents, who were friends with Artur Rubinstein and Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Her passion for high society took her to glamorous cities such as Saint Petersburg, Paris and New York. She fell for her first husband, Tadeusz Łempicki, when she was just a teenager. When he was arrested after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, she helped secure his release and the couple moved to Paris. Tamara studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière with the Symbolist painter Maurice Denis, although she considered André Lhote to have been her greatest influence.

So what did de Lempicka learn from old masters? She especially admired Bronzino’s portraits, filled with sensuality and masterful depiction of garments. She frequently visited Italy; she was fascinated by Renaissance paintings which influenced her love of colour and precision. She combined this passion with contemporary aesthetics such as advertising, photographic lighting and urban landscapes. She embodied the spirit of her time: her paintings were highly desirable and brought her financial security and place in society. As full of energy as the women she painted, de Lempicka was also highly skilled at managing her ventures, securing a collaboration with the magazine Die Dame«
which used her paintings on its cover.

It’s clearly bad to be a victim of your own failures, but it’s just as bad to be a victim of your success. Was this the case of de Lempicka? She certainly found it hard to adapt to shifting aesthetics, although she turned towards surrealism and abstraction in later life. The exhibition at the National Museum in Krakow includes a selection of these less-well-known paintings, providing fresh context for the familiar self-portrait Tamarain a Green Bugatti.

The column was published in the 3/2022 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

  • Agnieszka Drotkiewicz
    Author of novels, interviews, essays and collections of discussions on topics such as art, literature, social issues, music and cookery. Jointly with Ewa Kuryluk, winner of the Warsaw Literary Premiere. She works with the “Przekrój” and “Vogue”.

Fot. Antonina Samecka Risk made in Warsaw

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