Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Destruction of Novelty : Tamara de Lempicka

Tamara de Lempicka (1898 - 1980) has come full circle as regard to her place in the pantheons of art history. Coming from eastern Europe and descending upon the avant garde of Paris in the mid 1920's, her distinctive art deco style proved to resonant with the new field of flowering modernism. Always controversial she deemed the impressionists bad drawers and unable to steer clear of dirty colours and looking at any number of her works, one will be automatically struck by the sharpness of her lines and the block vitality of the greens, reds and blues. It is understandable why Lempicka fell out of fashion after the late 1940's for the art elite always likes to pride itself on being in the know as to what is new and innovative. To them Lempicka was a victim of her times and the world had moved on . It is ironic to think that the artist she condemned as "the novelty of destruction", Picasso, is touted as the highlight of 20th century art but it is her images that have now begun to flood the subconscious.

Lempicka's use of form, in particular the feminine, against a backdrop of the drive and thrust of a speedily increasing commercial world is relevant to the message she intended to get across I suspect. Her ladies are melancholic, and live in shades, their thick Raphaelite limbs seem to be the drapes around the complicated creased arrangements that appear as dresses but feel more like structures that struggle to contain the volcanic like darkness that one senses beneath the surface of these dainty but fairly Amazonian type women.

Each portrait she painted stresses a message and they are not the simplistic concoctions later critics assumed they were. The colour system is vetted to the background, so the use of green is meant to indicate freshness and vitality and when clashed with the ever-pervasive white innocence. When red clashes with white, the virginal motif is stained with both loss and danger, as in the picture to the left. Her female forms take on the shapes they cling to, whether it is flowers, buildings or automobiles. The invasion of the mechanical over the physical female form is a subconscious reflection on the state of the women in a male orientated world.

Her male portraits were few. Lempicka had a reputation as a lady's lady and her antipathy to men is reflected in the dull colours of her men. They represent the terror of the new and the fear of the unknown. There is a brutish appeal to them and though some are shown in brighter hues this is more in concord with her idealism that bright combinations reduce the man to the feminine and so the shape of these robotic looking men also alters. This is not any less apparent in some of her female compositions. There is a Cezanne feel to a few of her most deliberate works which actually distracts us from her genius for the simple.

The attempt to stimulate the visual field with an assault of line and purpose is perhaps best represented in one of the greatest pieces of art ever. It is often said that Cezanne was the master of the still life, and all artists comment upon his perfection but the final work I wish to display, below, rivals and I believe surpasses anything he ever done. Her use of the plate to mislead the eye from the five lemons is revolutionary, but none more so than the blue and white striped towel. The symbolism is striking. Recently Lempicka can be viewed on the covers of 1920's classics like Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and a few of Ayn Rand's works. The association to Rand is unfortunately misplaced, as her works are cold and sterile, but Lempicka's are the opposite. Through a brave use and at times abuse of imaging she achieves to stimulate our pleasure senses just by the subtle arrangement of form over content. To take this kind of novel art form and to teasingly deconstruct it according to the viewer is the height of destruction, and the meaning of art.

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