The work of Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka enjoys an eminent spot in the Art Deco movement of the 1920s, a style characterised by rich colours, bold geometric shapes and ornamental finishes. Yet her bold public persona and extravagant lifestyle helped immortalise her as a key female figure, not merely in the realms of art history, but reaching as wide as music, photography, fashion and feminist aesthetics.
In her iconic portraits, de Lempicka beautifully illustrates the high society of Paris, Milan and New York, her sitters elegantly poised in their sumptuous satin and furs. Her style is instantly recognisable, as she adopted and reinvented the geometric shapes of Cubism and the Futurist aesthetic, in thrall to the machine, draping everything from hair to skin in a shimmering metallic sheen.
From writers and entertainers to scientists and industrialists, her portraits reveal the beautiful and glamourous elite of an extravagant epoch, and de Lempicka didn’t think twice about including herself in this clique. One of her most iconic works is that of her own self-portrait, Autoportrait (1925), in which she speeds seductively and fabulously behind the wheel of a green Bugatti.
And why would she think twice? Tamara de Lempicka was able to so perfectly capture the spirit of this high-flying era precisely because she was part of it. Living lavishly in Paris, she was bold, indulgent and sexually adventurous, the epitome of the emerging, brazen modern women – and fashion was an integral part of exerting this newfound female identity.
The clothes in her paintings were as much a focus as the subjects themselves. Their bodies were draped in supple folds of material, billowing out into silky backdrops or unfolding into jagged, skyscraper peaks. Looking as though they had stepped straight out from the pages of Vogue, her women flaunted the era’s most contemporary fashions; from bright red lipstick and nails to garçonne hairstyles and clothes inspired by designers such as Schiaparelli, Vionnet, and Gres.
It’s no surprise that, decades later, de Lempicka was still making an impact amongst female audiences. The strong feminine presence and sensual aesthetics seem perfectly suited to Madonna, with her brazen attitude and eccentric sense of style. Her 1987 video Open Your Heart opens directly onto a large reproduction of Andromeda, modernised and sexed up to suit Madonna’s temperament with its breasts blazing. Madonna goes one step further with director David Fincher, incorporating de Lempicke’s visual aesthetics into the very fabric of her videos. In both Express Yourself (1989) and Vogue (1990), it’s not just the era’s fashion that Madonna emulates, with her tightly coiled blonde hair, bright red lip stick and an austere suit reminiscent of the Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle. It’s the indulgence of rippling silk sheets, metallic mist, skyscrapers and light penetrating the shots in bold geometric shapes that simply radiates Tamara de Lempicka.
It’s an appealing female aesthetic that has found its way into so much of our popular culture. In 2011, Florence Welsh collaborated with Karl Lagerfeld for her vinyl release of Shake it Out, and the Lempicka influence is undeniable. Her poses are sensuously feminine yet Florence’s attitude is pure poise, aloof and commanding against the crumpled, metallic backdrop.
A number of editorial photographers have directly emulated Lempicka’s paintings, including Serbian Fashion Photographer Marijana Gligic , Spanish photographer Eugenio Recuenco and Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia. In 2010, the luxury eyewear brand Cutler and Gross even incorporated this Art Deco vision into their autumn advertising campaign, entitled “Sprit of Lempicka.”
Within today’s fashion world, there is an unwavering allegiance to the Art Deco pioneer, nearly a century after the first wave of flapper decadence and allure, as designers continue to be influenced by her work. In Ralph Lauren’s A/W 2005-2006 collection, models sported an array of chic caps and wraparound scarfs inspired by Lempicka’s Autoportrait. Later, in 2011, Peter Copping’s chic and elegant A/W look for Nina Ricci emerged from a mood board overflowing with references to her artwork, while Emporio Armani’s 2013 A/W collection showcased a range of extravagantly tailored dresses that perfectly captured the essence of Femme bleu a la guitare.