Tamara de Lempicka and the rise of feminism
A few days ago, I listened to a talk about the (in)voluntary presence of sexism in everyday language. It was enlightening, discussing how certain expressions or images (in)directly affect our perception of gender equality. “Don’t cry, be a man!”, or “You fight like a girl”, or even – to my surprise – “Why don’t you let the man drive?”.
When I heard this last phrase, a painting popped up to my mind: the alluring and influential Autoportrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) by Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka.
One of the icons of the rising feminism of the 20th century, Autoportrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) was painted in 1929, commissioned by the German magazine Die Dame (The Lady) as the cover for the magazine, to celebrate women’s emancipation.
…And what a celebration of women’s emancipation it is! This painting is a true homage to the empowerment of both the (female) artist and women as a gender.
But before digging into this artwork, you know what is needed: context! In fact, one cannot understand this painting without referring to the life of Tamara de Lempicka and her cultural background.
The woman in the Bugatti: Tamara de Lempicka
Ok, here I have a confession to make. As a good nerdy, I am obsessed with more artists I care to admit (!), and one of them is Tamara de Lempicka. Known as La Belle Polonaise (the beautiful Polish, even if she was half Russian), she inspires me because she was a lady who lived life as she wanted, in a time where it was difficult for women to do so. Wealthy and with an enviable taste for fashion, she lived in Paris, participated to endless parties, wore elegant clothing, and became the exponent of the Art Deco movement.
What a woman!
Her nature is reflected in her Autoportrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti), where Tamara paints herself driving a fancy car, the one in vogue at the time: a green Bugatti. The fact that she is seen as the driver of the vehicle is a true symbol of women power.
Fun fact: she never even had a Bugatti, but only a little yellow Renault!
In this artwork, Tamara represents herself gracefully in her chic Twenties costume, portraying herself as a woman following the contemporary fashion trends.
“One imagines Tamara as the unchallenged star of a fashion contest, stepping out of the car and presenting herself to a jury whose members could include the Great Gatsby, Hemingway or Coco Chanel, and then in an elegantly superior attitude – one hand placed casually upon the bonnet – posing in front of the vehicle”.
Tamara de Lempicka became passionate about art after visiting Italy with her grandmother, and this influence is visible in how she manages to condensate the influence of classical art (viewed in Italy) with the most recent avant-garde movements, like cubism (present in Paris).
Have a look at the scarf around her neck: doesn’t it look like a block of marble or stone? The exquisite use of contrasts between light and shadows to convey tonal modelling (the 3D effect, so to speak) deeply recalls the stones of classical art or the solid forms of cubism.
Her style is unique and recognisable by everyone, characterised by this luxurious way of painting, where the whole pictorial space is taken by details. Have a look at this self-portrait: her figure and her green Bugatti occupy the whole scene. Our attention is directed to her through a bold diagonal line which seems to divide the painting in two parts, energetically drawing our attention to her gaze. This is further enhanced by the light colours used to depict her, which grab our attention.
Moreover, the hues are overall vibrant, saturated, shaping the forms and conveying the textures. Observe that Bugatti: doesn’t its metal shine?
Furthermore, the figure of Tamara appears rounded but somehow sharp, with an excellently achieved chiaroscuro to convey the sensation of mass. Her calm and serene expression, with her eyes engaging directly with the viewer, seem to communicate “Yes, here I am. In my fancy Bugatti, strong, forceful and comfortable with myself”.
When I think about this last point, I cannot avoid to recall a painting created by another strong female artist: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Self-portrait in a straw hat (1782). Briefly, here, the artist also shows herself as both a powerful woman and artist, directly and comfortably engaging with the viewer’s gaze.
Redirecting our attention to Tamara’s artwork, the combination of this fashionable lady and her luxurious car legitimately embodied the double aspect of a woman who is at once attractive and superior. In fact, it can be read as “the true portrait of the emancipated woman who knows how to get what she wants. She is wearing gloves, and a helmet. She is inaccessible, a cool, disconcerting beauty, behind which a formidable being can be glimpsed – this woman is free!”.
Think about it: the car was a relatively recent man-made invention, and the Bugatti was what today would be the Aston Martin or the Ferrari (I am not an expert in cars, so I hope I got the comparison right!). Hence, the automobile is a symbol of the virile potency of the man who created it. This is particularly relevant because Tamara, a woman, is instead placed driving this masculine vehicle, confident, showing the power of her gender and the right to be considered equal to men.
Additionally, the two elements do not contrast with each other. At the contrary, there is a harmonious sensation between the woman and the car, perfectly integrated, demonstrating how women are able to keep up with the modern technological advancements.
Impact and influences: an homage to Isadora Duncan
As I am sure you can imagine, the painting gained an immediate success, seen as the reflection of the modern woman and, with time, it came to be seen as the icon of the early 20th century.
To understand this, let’s take a brief step back. Art Deco was a contemporary artistic style considered “inferior” because it was mainly used in the so called “minor arts” (like decorative arts, for instance).
However, due to this consideration, it was less controlled and, consequently, was free to seek inspiration in whatever the artist considered appropriate.
As a result, Tamara de Lempicka decided to take the opportunity and pay homage to Isadora Duncan, a successful woman, being an exquisite and famous ballerina and choreographer, who had died 2 years before, her scarf getting stuck in the front wheel of her car.
As a result of this, Autoportrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) is a true emblem of the revindication and emancipation of women in the early 20th century. Tamara de Lempicka is seen as a strong and fashionable lady, confident and comfortable with herself, poetically conveying a very clear message: she is a woman, capable of driving her life.
- CRICCO, Giorgio, DI TEODORO, Francesco Paolo. Itinerario nell’arte. Dall’Età dei Lumi ai Giorni Nostri. Zanichelli: 2016
- CLARIDGE, Laura. Tamara de Lempicka. A life of Deco and Decadence. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC: 2010
- NERET, Gilles. Lempicka. Tashen: 1993
- Tamara de Lempicka. Reina del Art Deco. Edited by Skira. Madrid: Palacio de Gaviria, 2018. Exhibition Catalogue
 NERET, Gilles. Lempicka. Tashen: 1993, pg. 7
 NERET, Gilles. Lempicka. Tashen: 1993, pg. 9