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"I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don't apply to those who live on the fringe." These defiant words were spoken not by a notorious gangster but an acclaimed painter, Tamara de Lempicka, an extraordinary woman whose life could easily provide material for several novels. She was born in Warsaw as Maria Górska in 1895—or -96 or -98. (Later, she "corrected" the date to 1902.) Her father was a wealthy attorney, so she lived a comfortable life in Warsaw until her teens, when her parents divorced and Tamara was sent to school in Switzerland.
Around 1915, in Saint Petersburg, she married Tadeusz Lempicki, a Russian lawyer and socialite, with whom she had her only child, a daughter Kizette. Their dolce vita was interrupted by the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks arrested Tamara's husband.
In 1918, the family fled to Paris, where Tamara studied painting at Académie de la Grande Chaumière and Académie Ranson, with such teachers as Maurice Denis and André Lhote. She quickly established a reputation as a painter of portraits, primarily of glamorous people in the fashionable social circles in which she moved.
While Tamara received considerable critical acclaim and became a social celebrity, famed for her aloof Garboesque beauty, her parties, and her love affairs (with women as well as men), Tadeusz Lempicki returned to Warsaw and filed for a divorce. Tamara came to Poland three times to stop him, but the damage to their marriage was beyond repair.
In 1939, she moved to the U.S. with her second husband, Baron Raoul Huffner. They settled first in Hollywood, where they bought King Vidor's mansion, moving later to New York, where they took a fashionable apartment on East 57th Street. She remained successful and socially adventurous; by the 1950s, however, her style of painting was going out of fashion. She tried to change to abstract painting and started using a spatula instead of a brush, but these experiments were not very well received. In the 1970s, interest in her earlier work began to revive, and by the 1990s she had again become something of a stylish icon, with her paintings in high demand, fetching record prices in auctions.
Her work remains controversial: some consider her a genius, others a fraud. Laura Cumming sarcastically credits Tamara's paintings with "lighting by Caravaggio, tubism by Legér, lipstick by Chanel, styling by Esquire out of Ingres." Love it or hate it, her distinctive work—precise and smooth, decadent and stylized—is believed to epitomize the art deco style better than almost anyone else's.
Tamara de Lempicka finally retired to Mexico, where she moved after her second husband's death. She died in her sleep in 1980. According to her last wish, her ashes were scattered over the crater of Mount Popocatépetl (El Popo). Today her paintings are owned by Jack Nicholson, Donna Karan, Madonna, and Barbra Streisand, but you won't find any of them in the galleries of Warsaw, her hometown.
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