The beautiful and the damned

Art - Richard Cork follows the queen of art deco's descent into empty sentimentality

Nothing, not even the Russian revolution, could prevent the feisty Tamara de Lempicka gaining the success she craved. When Lenin triumphed, she fled to Paris with her lawyer husband, Count Tadeusz de Lempicka. While he frittered away his time, she studied art with Maurice Denis and Andre Lhote. Although in love with Italian Renaissance and Mannerist painting, this shrewd and formidable young woman also knew the appeal of modernity. So she clothed her traditionalism in a glossy metallic veneer that blended cannily with the streamlined aesthetic of art deco.

De Lempicka's decline in later years blighted her reputation, and only now is London giving this once neglected artist the accolade of a Royal Academy solo show. But it starts uncertainly, with a portrait of a surpris-ingly weary polo player, who boasts none of the broad-shouldered panache displayed by her later male sitters. At the same time, around 1922, she experimented with a spiky, macabre painting called The Kiss, where a sinister top-hatted predator with no mouth closes on a woman grinning through her garish lipstick. The dark expressionist mood betrays de Lempicka's Polish origins, and her subsequent female nudes border on the grotesque.

By1923, in a large canvas called Perspective, de Lempicka was bold enough to introduce a frankly lesbian theme. One woman, with tired and shadowy eyelids, leans her head against the taut thigh of an equally naked companion, who in turn places a proprietorial hand on her partner's upturned knee. Their intimacy reflects de Lempicka's growing taste for sexual experiment. Bored with the lassitude of Count Tadeusz, she had countless affairs with both men and women.

De Lempicka's accelerating involvement in Parisian nightlife didn't affect her ability to concentrate on art. Her nocturnal dalliances nourished the work she produced in the daytime. She alternated between images of deadpan, well-built women and brooding, super-macho members of the deposed aristocracy. Prince Eristoff, clad in a faultlessly fashionable blue suit, could hardly appear more chic. Yet in the hooded melancholy of his eyes we see the sadness of the emigre.

De Lempicka's female portraits exude a more positive allure. In Irene and her Sister, one woman's trendily close-cropped hair is juxtaposed with her sibling's soft, lush and shimmering tendrils, flowing down well below her waist. One of the two beribboned little girls in another portrait sprawls suggestively in an armchair like an abandoned doll. De Lempicka's love of eroticism was such that she even depicted her own young daughter Kizette as a pouting under-age pin-up, tanned and knowing in a pink dress.

By the mid-1920s, de Lempicka knew that her instantly recognisable paintings were in vogue among an aristocratic circle eager to benefit from art deco image-building. Commercial success enabled her to indulge in even more haute couture outfits, with sumptuous jewellery to match. Brandishing her independence in front of the hopeless and quarrelsome Tadeusz, she acquired an up-to-the-minute Renault and began placing her sitters against backdrops redolent of the modern, machine-age city at its most thrusting. Even Count Tadeusz found himself positioned in front of phallic skyscrapers, mean and moody in a black, double-breasted coat and white scarf.

Painted in 1928, the portrait of Tadeusz was tantamount to a farewell. Soon after, de Lempicka moved into a Paris apartment designed by the sought-after modernist architect Robert Mallet-Stevens. De Lempicka was in her element there, throwing exuberant parties in a theatrical, double-height central hall, where she also liked to paint. Her work became increasingly brittle, flashy and formulaic. A trip to New York in 1929 confirmed her infatuation with skyscraper settings, while her full-length society portraits of Ira P or Mrs Allan Bott have a cinematic impact.

But the more accomplished she grew, the emptier her work became. Resorting to well-practised tricks, she failed to distinguish between individual sitters. Romana de la Salle's glazed, mannequin-like features, for example, are exactly the same as Marjorie Ferry's. When de Lempicka tried to escape from cosmetic cliche, the results were disastrous. She dressed up the long-suffering Kizette in voluminous white veil and robes as The Communicant, clasping her hands in prayer and raising insufferably pious eyes towards heaven. A painting called The Convalescent is just as risible, showing a dark-haired beauty pining against a pillow, while her right nipple peeps enticingly from her designer lingerie.

At once sentimental and titillating, de Lempicka's work alienates as the exhibition advances into the 1930s. Marriage to the wealthy Austro-Hungarian landowner Baron Raoul Kuffner brought her even greater wealth and social cachet, but it could not prevent her succumbing to profound depression. Afflicted by a creative crisis, she paid the price for the relentless years of self-promotion, outrageous flattery and fashionable preening.

The last room charts her disastrous attempts to pursue a more humane, compassionate vision. Her depiction of a Mother Superior with tears spilling down her waxen cheeks is particularly mawkish. Ridiculously, de Lempicka toyed with the idea of retreating to a Tuscan convent. But the alternative decision, to sail with Baron Raoul to New York in 1939, did not improve her art. In unbearably heart-tugging paintings with such titles as The Refugees or Escape, she turned the Second World War into a plaintive drama peopled exclusively by distraught mothers and their waif-like offspring.Her later decades as an artist were as lamentable as they were unsuccessful. De Lempicka must have longed for the eclat she had enjoyed at the height of her youthful, heady celebrity.

"Tamara de Lempicka" is at the Royal Academy, London W1 (020 7300 8000) until 30 August

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