Saturday, 3 October 2015

Art Deco's King and Queen.

Art Deco was essentially an arts and crafts movement, and didn't attract a lot of painters into its fold, or they aligned themselves with other modernist movements which we give different names to, such as cubism, fauvism and so on.  Even then in the twenties and thirties the term 'Art Deco' didn't exist, it having been coined in the late 1960's by art critic Bevis Hillier.  When it was new they would probably have termed it the 'modern style or something similar.

There were painters of course who stood out at the time as having the not completely ignoble ambition of making work that entertained and was beautiful to look at.  The two painter decorators of the twenties and thirties who are usually named as the epitome of the Deco style are Tamara de Lempika (1898 - 1980) and Jean Dupas (1882 - 1964).  Their work has been re-evaluated since the 1970's and has risen in popularity ever since.

Tamara de Lempicka.  Portrait of the Marquis d Afflito.  1925
It's notable that here we know more of the woman than the man.  Lempika's career and lifestyle has been celebrated since her death, and her work quickly became known through posters, prints and the many books that have been published on her life.  I first remember seeing her work in the Observer magazine around 1977 with a colour spread of several of her most famous works, so the revival started early.  She was a portrait painter so her work had to look as stylish as possible, and she made sure her own image was well known amongst the well heeled patrons who commissioned her.  Being good looking and always fashionably dressed, she was as well aware of image as any movie star.

Born Tamara Gorska she came from a wealthy Polish family and married a Russian lawyer named Tadeusz Lempitzski.  Together they were forced to escape Russia at the revolution and found themselves, living on little money in Paris.  Although expecting her first child, she split from Lempitzski, and decided to support herself and her daughter by making use of one of those skills that the women of the upper middle class were always taught - painting.  She took lessons from André Lhote for a short time, whose new style of cubism - so called 'synthetic cubism' she developed for her own ends.  But she is really the last of the 'Neo classicists', creating figures that are hard edged, marble smooth, and often muted in colour.  Not for nothing did one critic (rather unkindly) term her 'a perverse Ingres of the machine age'.

Tamara de Lempicka.  A second portrait of the Marquis d Afflito, looking strangely like movie actor Peter Lorre!
It must have been difficult for Tamara to come to terms, as all successful artists must I suppose, with the fading of their star; Tamara remarried to an aristocrat, the Baron Kuffner.  With the looming of the Second World War she emigrated to the US where she spent the rest of her life, living long enough to see the new emergence of interest in her work.

For a long time I knew only the bare bones of the career of Jean Dupas, that of a painter and designer, in fact even now I have never seen a photograph of him either in a book or on a website.  However thanks to the Stephen Ongpin Auction rooms website, I now know a little more.  They state (in their small biography of Dupas) that Dupas was the son of a merchant marine captain and first worked as a merchant seaman, but due to illness had to give up this career, and decided to go into painting and design.  In this he is similar to Lempicka, who due to difficulties with the life she had mapped out for herself decided to make use of her latent skills as an artist.
An old photograph of the tea rooms on board the SS Ille de France.  I had seen this photo some time ago, but have never seen a modern image of this painting.  I wonder if it still exists, or is it hidden away in a private collection.
Dupas was born in Bordeaux, and once he had decided on art he went to art school first in Bordeaux and then Paris.  He won the painters Prix de Rome in 1910 at the age of twenty eight, with the proposed subject 'Eros, conquered by the god Pan,' and then studied at the Académie de France in Rome.  His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, but he was already thriving in the new style by the twenties.  His first triumph would be the large-scale oil painting Les Perruches.  (The Parrots 1925)

This appeared as a set piece in the Grande Salon of the 'Hôtel  d'un collectionneur' at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1925, the very exposition from which Art Deco derives its name.  From then he followed the usual path of designers, working on advertisements, posters, magazine art and private commissions.  He worked for Harpers Bazaar, and Vogue magazine, and on a series of posters for London Transport, depicting various leisure activities in London.

Jean Dupas.  Detail of the glass frieze decoration onboard the ocean liner SS Normandie. 
He went on to grander schemes when he was commissioned to decorate the first of a series of large ocean liners built by France in the late twenties and early thirties.  The first was the Ile-de-France in 1926, a large and ultra modern cruise liner, the interior and exterior of which looked startlingly new.  Soon after he worked on the SS Liberté, another modernist luxury liner, but the most famous work he achieved in liner decor was that for the liner SS Normandie.

For this ship he designed his most famous work, a huge glass frieze entitled 'The History of Sail'  which can now be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Lempicka and Dupas shared many traits of style and approach, and are classicists at heart.  If she was the Ingres of the machine age, then surely he was its David.

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