"I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don't apply to those who live on the fringe. "
– Tamara de Lempicka
When writing an article about an artist, one expects to have some discussion of the art created by the person in question, but in this case, that is going to be avoided. Tamara de Lempicka was a highly controversial artist, and there is no lack of people studying her work, no matter which side they fall on in regards to its worth. But we are not going to be looking at that, as we are not art experts, and have never claimed to be. We are going to be looking instead at her life, and it is an extraordinary one to discuss. Tamara was a bisexual woman who was made a refugee twice in her life, first by the Bolsheviks, then later by the Nazis. She was called bourgeois while simultaneously being poor, so she will no doubt provide more than enough for us to fill an article.
Tamara de Lempicka was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1898 to a wealthy family. Her father was a Jewish man, and her mother was a wealthy Russian woman. When Tamara was sixteen years old, she was married to Tadeusz Lempicki, who married her for her significant dowry, as he was a poor lawyer who could barely support himself. This was only the beginning of her troubles, as in 1917, when the Russian Revolution began, her family fled the country while Tamara and her husband stayed. Within the year, their home was invaded by the Bolsheviks in middle of the night when Tamara and her husband were having sex. Tamara’s husband was arrested, and her home ransacked.
Now here is where we must pause to discuss the framing of an issue. We are not an unbiased source and have never claimed to be otherwise, which makes us different from many of the sources we research into. Not because we are biased, but because we admit we are. Many of our sources make a very conscious decision not to mention particular aspects of someone's life, while at the same time claiming to be objective. Here is where we see a clear example of that phenomenon. When most sources come to this part in Tamara’s life, they skim over it very quickly or frame it in a very particular way, and we are going to show you how they put this event first then tell you the complete truth of what happened.
“Taduesz was arrested by the Bolsheviks, and Tamara braved the Russian Revolution to free him, using her good looks to charm favors from the necessary officials.” – Charles Moffat Art History Archive
“Lempicki was arrested by the Bolsheviks, but his wife secured his release.” – Fiona MacCarthy The Guardian
“[She]searched the prisons for him and after several weeks, with the help of the Swedish consul, she secured his release.” – Wikipedia
Now take a moment to think what exactly this implied she did. You might conjure up a picture of a charming young woman walking into the Swedish Consul and demanding their help to get her husband out of jail, perhaps flirting with a couple of the necessary people to get them to help her. Now, what happened was this nineteen-year-old woman who had just had to watch her husband be arrested in the middle of the night, and was desperate to find him, had to have sex with Swedish officials to secure his freedom.
Adult officials encountered this young woman looking for her husband and decided they would only give her help if she had sex with them.
When publications to do not describe this encounter in its full reality, they are very directly misinforming their readers and not pointing out a grave injustice this woman was forced to endure. There is a reason for this lie of omission, and this reason will become clear as we go forward.
After this traumatic incident, Tamara took her husband and ran to Copenhagen, then London, before settling in Paris. When she came to Paris, she had no money, and her husband refused to work. In Paris, she had a daughter, so she sold all her jewels and began painting for commissions. It is in this decision that she receives the most criticism. At the time, the art scene was filled with middle-class men who liked to pretend they were poor so that they could scoff at the upper class, and to them Tamara was bourgeois. A young woman trying to keep herself, her husband, and her daughter from starving was much too rich for their blood, so they mocked her constantly for working for rich people.
But she ignored them and kept working until she became rich. She worked twelve hours each day on her art, and yet as she entered the spotlight, critics called her frivolous, and still do to this day. Outside of her work, she enjoyed her new wealth, she partied, and surrounded herself with celebrities, sleeping with many of them regardless of their gender and enjoying her life.
As she earned enough money to be more than supplied for a while, all the while keeping her daughter taken care of, she worked on more personal projects. This included portraits of many queer people, and with a focus on women being with women, which many critics disavowed her for. But beyond painting queer people in a positive light, quite literally, she also painted women as strong and independent people, and her models had a wide variety of body types and gender expression.
But as World War II began, things changed drastically for Tamara. She saw the war coming far sooner than many others around her, and eventually, when she attempted to return to Paris, she was forced out because she was Jewish.
She was surrounded by anti-Semitism, and though she had secured herself a rich second husband and moved America after her first had left her for all her affairs (though he reportedly also had a few of his own), her life and work was affected deeply by it. She worked on war relief efforts, though she is rarely credited for doing so, and was just able to get her daughter out of Nazi-occupied Paris. She slowly changed the subjects of her paintings to include refugees and poor people and was rejected harshly by critics for doing so.
They claimed she was out of touch and didn’t understand the plight of these groups, not acknowledging that she had in her life been both for a time. After a particularly harsh reception of her work after an exhibit, she stopped painting entirely. Again, we must look at how people discuss this decision. Most of what we looked at mentioned the troubles she was facing as if it was not connected to the change in her art style.
They talk about her deciding to leave the art scene like it was a tantrum because people were rude to her, when in fact there was much more happening to her than just that. Regardless of the reasons, soon after her husband died of a heart attack, and she sold all of her possessions and moved to Texas with her daughter, where the two stayed for a significant amount of time. Much later in her life, she was able to see a new generation discover her art. Fans again overwhelmed the critics, and her work became popular again. She died in her sleep in 1980 with enough time to see people grow to love her again.
Her story ended happily, and there is something to be said for that, but her story is not often told as a happy one. That is what we are going to be looking at in the second part of this article, so keep an eye out.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Moffat, C. (2008). Tamara de Lempicka. The Art History Archive. Retrieved December
Brady, H. The Raucous Life of Tama de Lempicka: An Art Deco Icon. Retrieved
Bid Network Online. Artist Spotlights: Tamara de Lempicka. Retrieved December 23
Varieras, C. Tamara de Lempicka; World Deco Diva; Underrated master of the
roaring twenties. Retrieved December 23 2016 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiWKU0oo2t0
MacCarthy, S. (2004, May 15.) The Good Old Naughty Days. The Guardian.
Retrieved December 23 2016 from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/may/15/art
Culture.pl. Tamara de Lempicka. Retrieved December 23 2016 from
Catharina, A. (2012, February 2.) Art Attack! Tamara de Lempicka Didn´t Care Who
Knew. Retrieved December 23 2016 from https://www.autostraddle.com/art-attack-spotlight-tamara-de-lempicka-134087/
Charlish, R. Royal Academy. Art Deco Icon: Tamara de Lempicka.
Retrieved December 23 2016 from http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2004-02/lempicka.htm