Why is Tamara de Lempicka Everywhere Right Now?

tamara de lempicka at her easel
Why is Tamara de Lempicka Everywhere Right Now?Bettmann - Getty Images
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“Tamara de Lempicka was sort a Warhol before Warhol," Nick Deimel, a senior specialist at Sotheby's New York tells T&C. It's a bold statement. Namely, because the late artist's prominence peaked in the early 20th century, way before Warhol's exponential rise in America. But still, Deimel is onto something."She was an expert at not only hiding her identity from the public," he says, "but controlling it and rendering it as she saw necessary."

It's true: Lempicka–a Polish-born painter who fled to Paris with her first husband after the Russian Revolution imposed on her comfortable life in 1917–was an expert at controlling her public image. She signed her earliest works "Lempicki," the masculine form of her name, to conceal her gender. She also never claimed her daughter in public and vice versa. She was known to be bisexual and appeared as a "good" wife to some, and a queer force to a group of bisexual women including Vita Sackville-West, once the lover of Virginia Woolf, and the French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. It's often said that Warhol would've loved today's digital age, where people have so much control over their public image, and perhaps Lempicka would have, too.

tamara de lempicka
Edin Espinosa plays the late artist Tamara de Lempicka in the new Broadway musical Lempicka, now playing at the Longacre Theatre.Emilio Madrid

The artist was way ahead of her time, and her legacy's return to the mainstream might be telling of our own. The painter was prominent during the Art Deco era in Paris, and her work is often characterized by hints of the cubic forms employed by artists like Picasso, bold colors used in the works of El Greco, and the dramatics associated with Caravaggio. Her muses spanned from her daughter to lovers, and her work often depicted women, both elegantly clothed and nude. "She loved contrasts," Deimel explains. "In some paintings, she depicts modernist cities against a classic nude. There were many layers to her."

Just this past month, Sotheby's hosted The World of Tamara: A Celebration of Lempicka & Art Deco, a selling exhibition that featured several works shown alongside some of the world's most sought after Art Deco artists and craftsmen such as Raphaël Delorme, Le Corbusier, and Edward Steichen. There were jewels, too, from Cartier, Belperron, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Fouquet. Speaking of controlling one's public image, there was also a photograph of someone Lempicka once pretended to be. "She was staying in a hotel in Italy and the reporters thought she was Greta Garbo," Deimel explained. "So, the hotel asked her to dress up a little and pose for the cameras and she did."

tamara lempicka
Portrait de Romana, 1928, a painting by Tamara Lempicka that sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 2022. Getty/Sotheby's

The exhibition opened in tandem with the new Broadway show Lempicka, written by Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould. On stage, actress Eden Espinoza takes on the role of the artist and—in a somewhat fictionalized telling—falls in love with the steamy and thunderous escort Rafaela (portrayed by Amber Iman) while in Paris. Rafaela becomes Lempicka's muse and is often in her paintings. But, it soon gets tricky, and Lempicka is caught at a crossroads between Rafaela and Lempicka's husband, work, and familial duty.

"I've worked on this production for nine years now," Eden Espinoza tells T&C. "I've had the privilege to experience the character of Tamara de Lempicka after my own personal events... heartache, divorce, the pandemic. My experiences have given me so much more compassion for Lempicka and how she had to juggle it all. She had to keep it all together; her family, her career, her loves."

a man wearing a black robe
Portrait de Guido Sommi, (1925) portrays one of LempickaCourtesy of Sothebys

A recent performance of the musical brought to mind Bradley Cooper's take on the composer Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, and how he was often caught in a state of in-between: Being a classical conductor but wanting to foray into musical theater; being a devoted husband but also a playboy; finding lovers in both men and women.

Lempicka might already be packing houses on Broadway, but what's still yet to come is its namesake's first-ever retrospective in the United States, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco beginning October 12. According to the museum, the retrospective will feature around 100 of her works and will reveal the creative process behind her paintings.

tamara de lempicka on chaise lounge
The artist Tamara de Lempicka, in an undated photograph, died in 1980 but is today at the center of a cultural groundswell.Bettmann - Getty Images

"I feel like that there are things in place today that Tamara put in motion," Espinoza says. "What it takes and what it means to be an 'icon,' how she's branded herself, who she spoke to... she was a marketing genius. During her time, if she were a man, she would've been thought of as a Picasso or a Dali. Our society is slowly changing, and is receiving women in a way that it didn't before."

Finally, Lempicka’s efforts to curate her own image are paying off.

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