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Tamara de Lempicka, Paris-based Art Deco artist

The ‘femme fatale’ – a smoulderingly sensuous, dangerous and alluring woman – is a recurring figure in the arts. In 1929, the archetype made a dazzling appearance in a self-portrait by the thirty-one year old Polish-born and Paris-based artist, Tamara de Lempicka. The painting was executed in the then-current Art Deco style, which celebrated modern industrial technologies and gleaming materials, both streamlined and angular.

The painting was originally commissioned for the front cover of a German fashion magazine, Die Dame, to celebrate the emergence of independent, confident and free-thinking European women. This was in the era of the liberal German Weimar Republic – yes, recall the movie and musical Cabaret. In the spirit of the libidinous era, de Lempicka was herself attracted to both men and women – and made no secret of it.

The artist has placed herself speeding along at the wheel of one of the most powerful and desirable driving machines of its time, a gleaming metalic green Bugatti open-topped sports car. In real life, she drove a rather eccentric yellow Renault saloon around Paris, but this was a self-portrait about desire (in various senses), aspiration and assertiveness.

We can see that the car is ripping along the road at a blistering pace by the billowing of the artist’s long scarf. Despite the speed and danger of what she is portrayed as doing, de Lempicka is utterly composed. Her gloved grasp of the steering wheel is so relaxed, emphasising her easy control of the high speed drive. The brightest light and colour in the painting draws the viewer’s attention to the sculpted face, dominated by those smoky, sensual eyes and the luscious red lips. To complete the dramatic impact of this absolutely self-assured face, a curl of tousled, wind-tossed fair hair peeps out from beneath de Lempicka’s driving helmet.

Reflecting its intended purpose, the painting itself is quite small, being only 37 cm x 27 cm (14 inches x 10.5 inches). It was painted in oils on a simple wooden board rather than canvas. Generally known as Autoportrait: Tamara in a Green Bugatti, the painting is held in a private collection in Switzerland and very rarely makes any public appearance. We simply have to make do with reproductions.

As a the embodiment of a type, the femme fatale became a staple of Hollywood film noir in the 1940s. Instead of de Lempicka’s vivid colours, moody and deeply shadowed black and white film was used to accentuate the perceived darkness at the heart of the lethally attractive female figure who drew men to their doom. Prominent among others in film noir classics were the cold-bloodedly conspiratorial Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) and the murderously ambitious Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

In the murky world of film noir, the femme fatale getting what she so desperately wants invariably leads to her downfall, along with her fatally enchanted lover. It seems that in reality, Tamara de Lempicka never did get to possess that green Bugatti. But what she got instead was a form of immortality: the cool femme fatale forever staring directly at us, drawing us not to our doom but to an awe-struck reverence for such a powerful painting.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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