Art Deco star shined brightly and briefly

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In 1911 the St. Petersburg banker Maurice Stifter held a fancy dress ball. His young niece by marriage, Tamara, came as a Polish peasant, with a goose on a lead. She was probably not more than 13 or 14, but managed to attract the attention of one of the city's most eligible bachelors, Tadeusz Lempicki, a handsome, titled Polish lawyer in his early twenties. Five years later he married her.

By the time she launched herself as an artist at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1922, Tamara's married name had gained the aristocratic-sounding French particle "de," and she was signing her works Lempicka, or sometimes in the masculine form Lempicki, which left the first critic ever to mention her in print under the impression that she was a man.

"Italy gave me a lot," Lempicka told a Polish journalist in 1932. And despite her tireless networking in Paris, where she built up excellent contacts in the artistic and literary worlds, it was Italy that provided her with the opportunity for her first one-woman exhibition, in Milan in November 1925. The Palazzo Reale is now the venue for an enlightening, entertaining, well-researched reassessment of her life and works, curated by Gioia Mori (until Jan. 14).

Rewriting of personal history, self-aggrandisement, sexual ambiguity - she was a dedicated, indeed voracious bisexual - economy with the truth, the birthdate she claimed would have made her younger than her younger sister, were to characterize her long life. Her pyrotechnic career as a painter burned brightly for scarcely more than a dozen years.

But for the Bolshevik revolution, Lempicka would probably never have become a professional artist. She fled Russia in 1918, and she, Kizette (her daughter born shortly after her marriage) and Tadeusz were reunited in Paris later that year. The family, like many other refugees, found lodgings in a cheap hotel. Initially a low-level existence was sustained by the sale of her jewelry, but this was decidedly not the kind of longer-term lifestyle that Lempicka had in mind.

At the prompting of her sister, by then also in Paris, Lempicka, who had shown natural artistic talents since childhood, set about transforming herself into a portraitist. The principal bankable asset she had was her fortuitously acquired knowledge of Italian art, ancient, Renaissance and modern. She drew on some aspects of other modern movements, notably Cubism and Picasso's monumental figures of the early '20s. She had been taken on regular visits to the peninsula since at least 1907, expanding her familiarity with its art in the great collections of St. Petersburg, London and Paris.

The contemporary Italian scene Lempicka found herself being measured against at her first solo show in Milan was undergoing its own version of what Cocteau had styled the "return to order," the going back to classical forms after what had come to be seen as the excesses of certain kinds of modernism....

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