Still life by ‘femme fatale’ of art deco goes for cool half a million at auction

Thought to have been painted in 1925, Still Life With Tangerines became the first piece by Art Deco’s figurehead to be sold on the Polish market in six years. Ecole de Paris

A work painted by Tamara de Lempicka at the height of her artistic powers sold last night at auction for a hammer price of 580,000 zł.

Thought to have been painted in 1925, Still Life With Tangerines became the first piece by Art Deco’s figurehead to be sold on the Polish market in six years. Conducted by Warsaw’s DESA Unicum, the auction – which spotlighted émigré artists that worked in Paris during the first half of the 20th century – was comprised of 77 lots and included Khera - Kiki de Montmartre by Moise Kisling as well as Tadeusz Makowski’s Sitting Girl in Plaits.

Held at Warsaw’s DESA Unicum, the auction spotlighted émigré artists that worked in Paris during the first half of the 20th century.Paweł Bobrowski

“For several years this Lempicka painting was part of the collection of Yves Plantin,” Tomasz Dziewicki, the organizer of last night’s École de Paris auction told TFN. “He co-founded the Galerie du Luxembourg, which quickly became the first European gallery to really promote the Art Deco movement; as such Still Life With Tangerines is very much in tune with the spirit of that era, a period that is still recognized and celebrated by people across the world.”

This much is apparent by the world’s enduring fascination with the style, design and expression of that time. “Art Deco came about as a response to the total catastrophe of World War I,” continues Dziewicki. “Following this calamitous historical period came a strong desire to party, play and live life to the full; as an extension of this, Art Deco was the brilliant result of this new way of living.”

The apex of Lempicka’s career was reached with her 1929 self-portrait, Tamara In A Green Bugatti. Depicting herself rakishly posed behind the wheel of a sports car, it became iconic of the Jazz Age and cemented the artist’s name in Art Deco legend.Public domain

On its leading edge was Tamara de Lempicka. Born in Warsaw in 1898, and christened Maria Gorska, she was the daughter of a Russian-Jewish lawyer and Polish socialite. Sent to a Swiss boarding school at the age of 10, she is said to have painted her first portrait around the same time using her sister as a model. Shortly after, a summer spent in Italy with her grandmother inspired an interest in renaissance art, and her early life took another twist when, in 1916, she was sent to live with an aunt in Russia. It was there she married a Polish lawyer, Tadeusz Lempicki, with the couple forced to flee the Russian Revolution and find refuge in Paris.

Popularly known as the “Baroness With A Brush”, high-profile owners of her works today number Jack Nicholson, Madonna and Barbara Streisand, with auctions involving the artist frequently making headline news in the world of art.Ecole de Paris

Mentored by painters Maurice Denis and Andre Lhote, she soon developed a unique style that has since been described as a fusion of late cubist and neo-classical techniques. Having immersed herself in the Bohemian circles of inter-war Paris, her breakthrough moment arrived in 1925 when two of her works were displayed at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. Spotted by journalists from Harper’s Bazaar, her name reached an international audience and major exhibitions swiftly followed.

An apex was reached with her 1929 self-portrait, Tamara In A Green Bugatti. Depicting herself rakishly posed behind the wheel of a sports car, it became iconic of the Jazz Age and cemented the artist’s name in Art Deco legend. Divorced in 1927, she embraced the essence of the Roaring Twenties, earning a name for her frivolous affairs and licentious lifestyle. Later, and by then married to an Austro-Hungarian Baron and art collector, Raoul Kuffner, she escaped Europe on the eve of World War II and settled in the States. Living out her final years in Mexico, she died in 1980, but not before leaving instructions to have her ashes scattered by plane over a volcanic crater. It was a gesture entirely in line with a theatrical life defined by excess.

In November 2018, Lempicka’s La Musicienne (The Female Musician) went to an anonymous buyer for a record USD 9,075,500 at a Christie’s auction in New York City.Christies/Twitter

Whilst her work fell out of fashion for a considerable time, it once again found favour following an ongoing renewal of interest in the Art Deco time. Popularly known as the “Baroness With A Brush”, high-profile owners of her works today number Jack Nicholson, Madonna and Barbara Streisand, with auctions involving the artist frequently making headline news in the world of art.

“For DESA Unicum,” says Tomasz Dziewicki, “we were particularly excited about this auction because while we’ve auctioned twelve of her works before, this one last night is the first we’ve handled that was painted during her heyday.”

It is hoped that Still Life With Tangerines will remain in Poland as currently only one work of hers in the National Museum in Warsaw is on show to the Polish public.Ecole de Paris

“In addition,” he adds, “it was a great privilege for us as a Polish auction house to deal with this sale. Lempicka is an important part of international art history, and although it’s not my place to comment on just how Polish she really was, Lempicka maintained relations with Poland throughout her life – she was strongly connected to this country, if not physically then certainly mentally. Last night was a brilliant chance to return Lempicka’s work back to her roots.”

Whilst the winning bidder has so far remained anonymous, Dziewicki is hopeful that Still Life With Tangerines will remain in the country. “This is a very special artist we’re talking about, and yet there’s only one work by her (editorial note: Lassitude inside the National Museum in Warsaw), that’s on show to the Polish public. We’ll see what happens, but we hope that it’ll become part of a Polish collection.”