nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
April 9, 2005
Tamara de Lempicka enters. It’s a simple artist’s studio with an easel, paints on a table, and several pictures on stands. Lampicka is wearing a wrap, a very deco black hat, and a thin-strapped full-length dress of a striking green color that is almost identical to the color of the Bugatti she is driving in her most famous self-portrait. She has walked in on an interviewer who has been waiting for her. She tells the interviewer that she must paint now, and that he can stay and watch. She will be happy to tell him stories about her life while she paints, but he can ask no questions.
It's a bit of an awkward and contrived script set up—let me get this out of the way—to allow playwright/actress Kara Wilson to freely tell the story of Tamara de Lempicka, one of the most exotic characters of the 1920s and 1930s, and most recognizable artists of the art deco style. Once the set up is complete, however, Wilson can go just about anywhere with the story of Tamara’s life, a story she is clearly fascinated by, and committed to, and that she tells heartily, capturing Tamara’s ego, tenacity, and lust for life.
Lempicka’s story has always interested me. It was the subject of another play, Tamara, depicting a particular night when many of the historic characters she knew came together. She married well, lived an opulent life, and had the time and space—and fortunately the talent—to paint many well-known works. Because of the circles she traveled in, her life story has become renowned where many others have not. And so she has become an emblem of an era.
Her story is the story of a time and place where so much happened in the world, both great and terrifying. Born in Poland, her childhood was spent in Florence, Venice, Rome, and Monte Carlo. In Italy she got the painting bug. After boarding school in Lausanne, she moved in with her aunt in St. Petersburg, right before the start of the Russian Revolution. She married an aristocrat who was arrested when the Revolution began. Much of her family escaped from Poland, and she escaped to Helsinki with the help of the Swedish consul, who also arranged for her husband’s release. Settling in Paris, her art education became quite serious, with her discovering Art Deco at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs in 1925. Within a few years, she was selling her paintings along with her friends Picasso, Laurencin, Leger, and Modigliani, and being dressed by Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret.
This and the rest of Tamara’s life, spent mostly in the company of European and American nobility and glitterati, is a lot to squeeze into a show of little more than an hour. In an attempt to tell the whole story, much of the script sounds like exposition rather than monologue, and still we get only a glimpse of what was clearly a decadent and extraordinary adventure. But it is not Wilson’s intention to tell the detailed autobiography of her subject, so much as to paint a character. This she deliciously accomplishes in several ways. First of all, much of the show concerns her relationship to her art and to her subjects: who they were, how she found them—or they her—and the experience of working with them, disrobing them, posing them. Some she knew only fleetingly, some for much longer. Some of them, including many women, became intimate obsessions. It is the most personal part of Deco Diva, and the most revealing.
Also, throughout the play Wilson paints a replica of one of de Lempicka’s paintings of a woman named Rafaela, whom she discovered in the Bois de Boulogne. At first I thought this might clutter the play with unnecessary business, but as she tells Rafaela’s story, it is hard not to watch her apply the color to the canvas and wonder if de Lempicka applied it in the same way, with the same sort of strokes and the same attention or rhythm. It also forces the audience to think about the style of art deco itself, to notice the hard lines separating colors, how the soft skin tones contrast with the darker synthetic and metallic tones. The painting is, in fact, auctioned after each show.
Deco Diva is a loving and passionate tribute from an avid fan. Wilson, who is credited with the direction as well, adapted the play from Passion By Design, a 1987 biography by Tamara’s daughter, Baroness Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall. I am inspired by Wilson’s passion to find this book and learn more about this intriguing woman and her work.