The Breakthrough Review
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TAMARA de LEMPICKA
by Joanne Harrison
After dinner the maid placed a shaded
lamp beside the baroness's chaise longue.
For just a moment it illuminated the
upper part of her face, dramatizing her
eyes, huge, strange, glowing, Pacific blue,
their basilisk expression emphasized by
dark lines defining the edges of her eyelids. Then she moved and her face was
hidden in the shadows. A curl of cigarette
smoke snaked upward in the pool of
yellow light. Her left hand reached out
and with a casually elegant gesture tapped
ashes into a beaten copper tray. The
lamplight glittered off the giant, square-
cut topaz on her middle finger and the
thick gold bracelet studded with
hundreds of tiny rubies that complemented the vermilion lacquer on her
nails. Her hands are still lovely, long and
slender, belying her advanced age.
I asked about The Book.
"C'est un scandale!" she raged. "How
can they print such scandals, such servant's gossip,-such lies?"
Tamara de Lempicka, the Baroness
Kuffner, cosmopolite, Houstonian and
Deco artiste extraordinaire, was a legend
fifty years ago; and now, at the age of
eighty, she is a legend once again. During
the 1920s and 1930s, her celebrity often
overshadowed the fact that she was one
of the most technically accomplished
painters of her time.
But while she retained the admiration
of many art critics and historians of the
Deco period, after World War II she faded
from the public view. Then, last year,
Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci
brought out a $115.50 English language
edition of Tamara de Lempicka, a beautifully printed and bound coffee table
book illustrated with color plates of the
baroness's paintings. The book has
generated a spate of newspaper and
magazine articles about Lempicka, and so
pulled her willy-nilly back into the spotlight. As the baroness sees it, the Ricci
book has also generated a major scandal
that threatens her reputation as an artist.
The cause of the furor is the book's
text, advertised in the subtitle as "the
journal of Aelis Mazoyer, Gabriele
D'Annunzio's housekeeper." D'Annunzio
was the famous Italian poet and Mazoyer
was his mistress and servant. The gleanings from the journal provide, to say the
least, a curious juxtaposition to Lem-
picka's paintings. The housekeeper's
notes tell a back-stairs story of low
romance and lecherous doings at the
Vittoriale, D'Annunzio's infamous pleasure palace on Lago di Garda.
Lempicka vibrates with fury and
frustration when she mentions the book.
True, she says, she was once invited by
the eccentric, womanizing D'Annunzio to
do his portrait, which she saw as a great
opportunity for a young painter. True
also that she accepted his invitation to
paint him at the Vittoriale. But, she says,
when she saw that D'Annunzio was more
interested in seducing her than in sitting
for her, she left.
Now she is distressed and embarrassed
by the third-hand "vulgarites" in the
housekeeper's account of statements by
D'Annunzio such as these: ". . . he had
said to the lady (Lempicka) that the
whole house was hanging by a hair of
her c—." and "I wonder what that
beast (Lempicka again) is doing down
there, all alone with her legs spread."
The publisher's plans for a new, inexpensive edition of the book have
distressed the baroness even further. "It
is bad enough what they have done with
the few; now everyone will read these
lies. This is not my work, my art," she
fumes. "All that people will remember
or know about me is this servant's lies."
All the publicity surrounding the
book, and in fact the introduction to the
book itself^has described her as unknown,
mysterious and reclusive, a globe-trotting
cosmopolite who is difficult to find, or,
if found, unwilling to give interviews.
After a few inquiries in Houston, I
discovered that she summers in
Cuernavaca to escape the stifling Gulf
Coast heat. A few more inquiries produced her telephone number.
The long distance connection was
very clear. She readily agreed to be interviewed.
"Ring my daughter Mrs. Foxhall in
the River Oaks and she will give you
directions," the baroness said. "In this
villa I have not a good north light. On
Monday I move to another where it is
better. You must come on Wednesday."
The warm Cuernavaca morning was
heavy with the scent of frangipani. Birds
of paradise grew in well-trained rows beside the still, blue surface of the pool.
White lace butterflies with wingspans
wide as swallows' moved nervously
against a backdrop of towering black-
green pines. Around a corner of the
baroness's villa, near the herb garden,
an old man with brown leather skin, a
spotless white shirt of much-washed
manta cruda, and an ancient broad-
brimmed straw hat was sweeping
rhythmically. He swept away the dozen
or so leaves that had fallen overnight to
mar the green perfection of the lawn. The
gardener stopped at the sound of the
baroness's footsteps on the flagstones.
She moved beautifully, floating by in a
floor-length swirl Nof vivid colors, full
blown roses silkscreened on a virtually
diaphanous material, her picture hat
casting shadows on her face. She paused
on the path beside the pool, an ethereal
figure reflected in the water.
The gardener stood very still, holding
his homemade broom of twigs. She
passed by. He tipped his hat.
I stood on the patio of the guesthouse,
in the shade of a lavender-flowering
jacaranda, and watched the scene being
played out: direction by George Cukor,
production design by Cecil Beaton.
She saw me and beckoned, an imperious gesture, balletically graceful.
"Come, child, it is time to work."
I followed her into the shadows of the
veranda where she arranged herself on a
chaise longue, as artfully unselfconscious
as an Odalisque by Ingres.
Her voice is dusky, mesmerizing,
— a deeper version of the young Lauren
BacalPs. Her accent is Mayfair overlayed
with Czarist Russian and with new chic
French - all elegant Parisian vowels
playing counterpoint to deep-throated
Slavic consonants. She shades every word
as if it were a bar of music, a part of
something larger but at the same time
perfect in itself.
Probably she no longer speaks any
language in its pure form. Instead, her
speech is now a colorful argot of her own
devising, a fascinating juxtaposition of
vivid expressions borrowed from most
of the languages of western Europe.
"Put off the recording machine, child,
and close the book. When you listen, you
She leaned back into the cushions,
their faded gray-and-blue pattern framing
the ivory parchment of her skin. High,
exotic cheekbones emphasized the angularities of a face that recalls half-forgot ten
poetry. "Autumn is like an old woman/
who is still beautiful/because her bones
She arched her back, briefly touching
me." She smiled.
"When she was finished, I did not like
the result; it was not . . . precise. The
lines, they were not fournies, not clean.
It was not like me. I decided that I
could do better. I did not know the
technique. I had never painted, but
this was unimportant.
"My sister was two years younger.
I obtained the paint. I forced her to
sit. I painted and painted until at last I
had a result. It was imparfait but more
like my sister than the famous artist's was
She smiled a slow, sophisticated smile
that both acknowledged and indulged
the audacity of her younger self.
Although Polish by birth, Tamara
was, from an early age, a peripatetic
cosmopolitan. The Gorska family was
well-connected throughout Europe. Her
the cushions with the top of her head,
emphasizing the length of her neck,
surely once compared to alabaster
columns. She shut her eyes, rolling them
back and at the same time sighing deeply.
She waved her hand in a very Russian
"We will begin ..."
In the last summer of The Good
Years, at a country house outside Warsaw, a twelve-year-old Tamara Gorska sat
for her portrait.
"I was a little fattie, une petite
grosse," she remembers almost three-
quarters of a century later. "My mother
decided to have my portrait done by a
famous woman artist who worked in
pastels. I had to sit still for three hours
at a time . . . more ... it was a torture.
Later I would torture others who sit for
UHomme a La Guitare
Musee de Beauvais,
"I wished to paint an
old man. It was a very
strong desire. I must find
the old man. So I went to
I'Academic La Grande
Chaumiere to search for a
model. There I found the
face. An old man in rags. .
I said he must sit dressed
exactly as he is. He came
back to my studio. He sat
for some days, always
looking so sad. Then one
day, before we begin, he
takes from his pocket a
wallet from which he takes
a very old, very yellow
cutting from the newspaper. It was folded and
refolded one hundred
times. He gives it to me
and says, 'J was not always as you see me.' The
cutting tells of Rodin's
lovers (The Kiss). // tells
the model's name. 'lam
that man,' he says."
uncle's banking house had offices in
France, Switzerland and Russia, in addition to Poland; and her grandmother took
her on a grand tour of the Italian art
museums when she was just thirteen.
When she was not much older, she fell
in love with Thadeus Lempitzski. "He
was the great love of her life. They
married when she was only fifteen," her
granddaughter, Houstonian Tamara (Cha
Cha) Foxhall Molinello, says.
The young couple moved to St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, where Lempitzski
was a lawyer for the bank owned by his
wife's family. When the Russian revolution erupted, they fled with what they
could salvage and joined the flood of
"First we went briefly to Copenhagen.
Denmark is a nice little country, but
DECEMBER/JANUARY 1979 HOUSTON BREAKTHROUGH 13