Could Tamara de Lempicka’s mock-cubist daubs really get any tackier — or more creepy, asks Waldemar Januszczak
Lempicka was a liar, a snob and a fraud from the off. Born in Moscow circa 1898 (she habitually sliced a few years off her true age, so nobody is entirely sure of the real date), Tamara Gurwik-Gorska pretended all her adult life that she was born in Warsaw. She probably did this because her father was a Jew, something she was ashamed of — and anyone in Slavic circles hearing the name Gurwik and knowing she came from Moscow would have identified this Jewishness immediately. Whatever the exact motivation for the chronological and geographic makeover, it set a pattern that would continue for the rest of her supercharged chancer’s life. Nothing this grotesque woman ever said can be trusted. Nor can anything she ever painted.
When she was 19 or so, she married a Polish lawyer called Tadeusz Lempicki, who also gets “improved” in her outrageous rebranding campaign to Count Tadeusz de Lempicki. These two pretend aristocrats got caught up in the Bolshevik uprising in St Petersburg, and Lempicki was arrested. According to Lempicka, she managed to get her husband free by seducing the Swedish consul: the cheap novel playing in her head was in the style of an airport thriller.
However it actually came about, the two of them slithered into Paris together in 1919, and Lempicka’s assault on human decency and the artistic standards of her time could begin in earnest. She had wanted to be a painter, she claimed, since a visit to Italy with her grandmother. Here was her chance.
The opening space at the Royal Academy is dominated by a ring of bulky female bodies assembled from badly understood cubist short cuts. Clive James famously described the bulging Arnold Schwarzen- egger as looking like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts — but Lempicka’s first vaguely cubist Parisian nudes are uglier and bulgier than that. They look like reclining pairs of tights stuffed with bowling balls. What we see here is an absence of know-ledge of real human anatomy, combined with an absence of understanding of what modern art was really trying to do.
A particularly ludicrous painting called Perspective features two of these crudely cubistified nudes stretched out on a cubistic bed in a cubistic piazza. One is asleep, the other lost in thought. We assume from their intertwined nakedness that they have just been at it, and thus we have here a clumsy display of cubistic lesbianism. People are fond of saying that Damien Hirst, say, set out to get attention by deliberately employing shock tactics. Take it from me: Damien is an innocent baa-lamb in this field of artistic shock manipulation when compared with the creepily manipulative and utterly ruthless Lempicka.
To see cubism — perhaps the most determined investigation there has been in art of spatial and figurative complications — reduced to a facile mannerism for peddling ersatz lesbian chic is as sad as it is annoying. Good people knock themselves out bravely challenging the old prescriptions. Bad people come along and redirect the revolution into ashtray design. Having fetched up in Paris at the tail end of the cubist rebellion, Lempicka took the new style, squeezed all the complexity out of it, corrupted it with her snobbish Russian arriviste values, reduced it to a set of easily reproducible mannerisms and set about selling it to the rich punters she had targeted as her clients. Her anatomy might have been horribly imprecise, but her targeting of the rich was as exact as a laser.
I was interested to see her fiddling about with her signature, for instance. She signs several of her earlier works in heroically huge letters, T De Lempitzki, which not only acts as a handy pronunciation guide to the proper way to deal with the Cs and Ks at the end of her name, but also turns her into a Slavonic man. If a man sold better than a woman, she was up for being one. It’s hardly surprising that Madonna is such a keen collector of her work: so many of Lempicka’s artistic strategies are so MTV — the gender-jumping, the identity games, the name changes, the lesbian chic, the stately-home plushness. I suppose we should give her some credit for being ahead of her times in her adoption of a pushy feminine phoneyness and in getting to the Hello! age before anyone else.
Just as Lempicka herself seems to be starring in a movie playing in her head, so all the princes, duchesses and grand dukes who begin to fill up her art appear to have been encountered while in the throes of a mental fiction. One of the men who murdered Rasputin, Grand Duke Gabriel, stands in a lurid red uniform crisscrossed with enough gold braiding to rig a three-master and replays the highlights of his heroism somewhere far away over the spectator’s left shoulder. A rich scientist called Dr Boucard, who made his money in patented indigestion pills, swivels athletically in his white coat and holds up a test tube and microscope as Brad Pitt in Troy might present a shield and spear.
To begin with, the cubistic melodrama is merely hilarious. But then you notice how similar this stuff is to the mock-heroic fig-urative art demanded first by the fascists, then by the communists. When you see the inventor of indigestion pills presented as a glorious hero of the people, you are seeing the same transformative dynamics in action that would turn Siberian tractor drivers into the embodiments of Stalin’s Russia, or blonde German shepherdesses into the approved look for Aryans. Lempicka wasn’t alone in producing fascistic figuration in France in these years — Derain, Vlaminck, Maillol, were all at it. But with her, it is easy to see how the look of fascism and the look of art deco popped out of the same mould.
The other aspect of her that is creepy is her sullen eroticism. While her men pose like stallions, her women lie around in post-coital stupors like beached albino seals. I won’t bore you with any of the often-repeated tales of Lempicka’s debauchery, the cocaine addiction, the three-in-a-bed experiments with genders, the constant betrayal of her husband. But she can be seen here eroticising her own daughter in a portrait of Kizette in a short tennis skirt, aged about 10, yet already giving us the come-on. By now, Lempicka had perfected her famous manner: streamlined the bowling-ball bulges out of her anatomies and polished up the surfaces of her people to make them appear pointy and metallic. All the interchangeable art-deco women who pour out of her so lucratively in the late 1920s and early 1930s wear something tin and provocative through which their bits can poke as they hover miraculously before skewwhiff cubistic skyscrapers. A room crowded with these matching ashtray decorations pretending to be women, with their pointy breasts, made me feel as a lump of cheddar must when it finds itself in a cheese grater.
Then it was over. The 1930s finished. The bottom dropped out of the count and countess market. The real world barged aside Lempicka’s ornate fascistic fantasies. Her dukes ran for it. And she, like the show, tried to move on. The last room contains a summary of the various looks she briefly adopted as she searched in vain for a new style that might prove as catchy as her mock-cubism. She lived until 1980. And never found one.