Portrait of a far from still life

Tamara de Lempicka by Laura Claridge, (Bloomsbury £25)
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The Independent Culture

Although I spent four years at the Chelsea School of Art, I had never heard of Tamara de Lempicka until I read Laura Claridge's biography. Her reputation has been undeservedly ignored. "No doubt art histories would treat the painter less skittishly if she had been attached to a struggling, significant male painter," writes Claridge. "From the end of World War One until the 1960s, no major female painter would succeed commercially unless she was linked to a prominent male artist whose interest in her was sexual as well as professional."

Tamara was born at the end of the 19th century in Moscow. She was from an aristocratic Polish family and had some Jewish blood, a fact she chose to conceal, together with her age and birthplace. She married Tadeusz Lempicki, by whom she had a daughter, Kizette. She escaped the Bolshevik Revolution at 20 or so, with the help of a Swedish consul who forged papers for her and later got her husband out of the country in return for sex. This was the first of a long series of liaisons. Eventually she was reunited with her family in Paris, where she became an artist almost by chance. While most of the aristocratic émigrés made a living by modelling, she realised her body was too curvaceous, so she took art lessons instead.

Lempicka's early paintings were signed with the masculine sounding T de Lempitsky. They are cubist works in the manner of Léger, but with a sensual sheen to the skin that is reminiscent of Ingres or Renaissance Italian painters. While allying herself to modernism, Lempicka liked to use old techniques, pricking out her outlines on canvases or panels, heavily coated with gesso. Her monumental nudes fetch the highest prices these days - Lempicka was an admirer of the human form.

While she sold paintings, she was also socialising frenetically: "What other housewife sniffed as much cocaine? Or danced with her pelvis grinding into whatever man or woman partnered her? Nor could any ordinary woman stare at a man's trousered crotch with Tamara's icy elegance." Tadeusz, the cuckolded husband, turned into a sullen wife-beater and eventually left her for a more average marriage. There is a striking portrait of him, minus his wedding ring: The Unfinished Man.

Tamara's second marriage, to the Baron Kuffner, seems to have been happier. He respected her as an artist and bankrolled her extravagant lifestyle. They both travelled and had their own sexual partners, strings of them. He sailed or hunted while she dressed flamboyantly, painted and partied. An obsession with food and sex runs through Lempicka's life and work. Sometimes she ate the still lifes she was supposed to be painting. At parties, in her lesbian phase, she indulged in midnight meals of food arranged artistically on the bodies of her girlfriends.

As Europe went to war, the Kuffners emigrated to Hollywood, a congenially decadent scene. Though Lempicka eventually left California to live on the East Coast, her work has frequently appealed to stars. In later years, Madonna, Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand were among the discerning few to recognise its quality.

Lempicka's style continued to change and develop throughout the following decades. But her glossy still lifes and her thick palette knife paintings were less admired than the early work. As Lempicka aged, she had to come to terms with both loss of looks and loss of artistic reputation. Her last years were spent in a house in Mexico where she had hoped her daughter would join her. Although she loved Kizette, she had dominated her throughout her life while lavishing money on her. As a kind of blackmail she made a series of wills, sometimes cutting her out completely. In the final one, half her paintings were left to a young Mexican artist, Victor Contreras, who was with her at the end. He had the task of scattering her ashes from a helicopter into Mount Popocatépetl. Claridge ends somewhat sentimentally with a vision of him: "Staring at the luminescent veil of volcanic ash shimmering on Cuernavaca's narrow stone streets, he sighs fondly: 'Tamara darling, you never know when to stop.'"