Her inclusion of skyscrapers or telephones advertised her enthusiasm for modernity. A proto-ladette, she once painted herself at the wheel of a Bugatti, an eloquent expression of her position in life – literally and metaphorically in the driver’s seat.
Her cropped compositions in melodramatic chiaroscuro were cinematic and so ultra-modern. Influenced by Italian Renaissance art, her smooth-skinned, athletic subjects recall Michelangelo’s muscular marble figures – albeit in stylised, anatomically simplified form. Yet her style was contemporary, fusing Art Deco with Synthetic Cubism (Cubism’s post-1912, figurative incarnation).
De Lempicka’s work has often come under fire for being decorative and – to use that aptly camp-sounding word meaning superficial – jejune. As one Observer critic sniped: ‘Lighting by Ingres, tubism by LÃ¨ger and lipstick by Chanel.’
Not that the Royal Academy of Arts – where 55 of her paintings are about to go on show – agrees. ‘The RA likes to put on innovative exhibitions, and we feel de Lempicka was unique,’ says co-curator Simonetta Fraquelli. ‘She doesn’t fit into any art historical category. Another reason for the exhibition is that she’s never had a one-woman show in Britain.’
Its timing is perfect: the V&A’s recent Art Deco show was its biggest hit ever, while, in fashion, the spring/ summer 2004 collections were awash with flapper frocks.
The hyper-mannered style of de Lempicka (who died in 1980) borders on the vacuous. And there’s something unsavoury about her early work’s similarity to Milan’s Mussolini-affiliated Novecento art movement. Yet by often foregrounding women as emancipated, her work highlighted radical social changes which saves it from being inanely decorative.
Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco Icon, 15 May to 30 August, is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1. www.royal academy.org.uk