The Price Will Go Up Tamara

"I liked to go out in the evenings and have a good-looking man tell me how beautiful I am or how great an artist I am," a biography quotes Tamara de Lempicka as saying. "And he touches my hand . . . I loved it! And I had many, many." This darling of the smart set in Paris in the '20s also had many patrons for her slick, mechanically sexy paintings of subjects like "Suzy Solidor" (1933), a lesbian nightclub owner. The Polish-born de Lempicka made a million dollars. But the fortunes of both life and art turned against her. When she fled Europe for America with her second husband, a baron, in 1939, she seemed to leave her flair on the Continent. She enjoyed a brief vogue in Hollywood (she was known as the "Baroness with a Brush") before moving to New York in 1943. With surrealism and abstract expressionism on the rise in the art world, she painted little -- and not very well. When she died in 1980, at 82, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, she was practically forgotten.

Last week the first museum retrospective of de Lempicka's work opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (It runs through Oct. 2 and won't travel.) The exhibition is an official stamp of approval on her new reputation, revived first by the amazing commercial success of her work on the auction block. At Christie's in New York in March, Barbra Streisand sold de Lempicka's "Adam and Eve" (1932) for an astonishing $1.8 million -- a picture the star had bought 10 years ago for a mere $135,000. Back in 1975 a de Lempicka could be had at auction for less than $3,000.

Not bad for an artist most critics think is a minor talent, if not an outright bad painter. The New Criterion's editor, Hilton Kramer, says, "Her art is entirely defined by the kind of art deco mentality that was really created by Hollywood and show business. And it has really no artistic relevance beyond that." Milton Brown, emeritus professor at the City College graduate center in New York, concurs. Her work, he says, "is almost soft porn that passed for elegance at one time. It's caught on now because it's a camp version of the '20s."

Whatever the reason, de Lempicka paintings are popular in Hollywood, and celebrity collectors have helped boost prices. Besides Streisand, who still has at least four de Lempickas, Jack Nicholson and Madonna are big collectors of her work ("Madonna's interested in nudes, mainly," says Jonathan Hallam, director of Barry Friedman Ltd.). "When Madonna buys a painting," explains art historian Francis Nauman, "some rich guy in the Midwest who never bought art in his life buys a de Lempicka because Madonna [might] make a movie out of it and it'll make him rich."

De Lempicka's climb from obscurity owes as much to the mystique of her decadent life as it does to her art. In 1977 Franco Maria Ricci, owner of the glossy magazine FMR, published a book about one of her erotic intrigues. Tamara, who had a string of male and female lovers, visited the Italian fascist poet Gabriele d'Annunzio in 1927. She wanted him to pose for her; d'Annunzio, an aging lothario, envisioned a seduction. His maid (and cocaine supplier) kept a diary about the unrequited mess, on which the book was based. "All that people will remember or know about me is this servant's lies," lamented de Lempicka when the book appeared. She was right. The book became an avant-garde play, "Tamara," which opened in Toronto in 1981 and turned into a chic must-see event. The audience, furnished with champagne, circulated through a real building, catching different scenes in each room. An L.A. version, which for a time starred Anjelica Huston, opened in 1984 and ran for an amazing nine years. (When Nicholson, then Huston's boyfriend, attended, people reportedly followed him around.) In 1987 "Tamara" hit New York and ran for more than two years.

In the exhibition in Montreal -- which has 46 of the 84 paintings known to exist -- de Lempicka looks better on the wall than she does in reproductions. In such works as "Portrait of Grand Duke Gabriel" (1927), from Nicholson's collection, the enamel-like surface is rich and luminous, the composition tight and the sitter convincingly decadent. But overall, de Lempicka's work looks too much like cubism crossed with a Vargas pinup. Her paintings would be at home hanging over a moderne wet bar, but they're not very inventive. She's the end product, not the producer of art that influences other artists.

Nevertheless, Tamara has her supporters among critics. Robert Rosenblum of New York University sees her as "a thinking woman's Leger" in tune with our times: "She was a liberated woman and she was frankly erotic." Among certain collectors, those qualities doubtless strike a sympathetic chord that is likely to reverberate for quite a while. The resuscitated Tamara probably hasn't peaked yet.