The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 34: Andy Warhol

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The Independent Culture
Tamara de Lempicka was born in Poland at the turn of the century, was married in St Petersburg in 1916, fled the Bolshevik revolution the following year and eventually fetched up, like many of her affluent Bohemian caste, in Paris. There she devoted herself to painting, in a glamorously metallic, naggingly memorable style, the city's literati, glitterati and twitterati. Described by one critic as "the perverse Ingres of the Machine Age", she was rewarded with fame, acclaim, a vast personal fortune and, 30 years later, almost total neglect - followed, in the 1980s and 1990s, by a belatedly revived interest in her as a petit-maitre (or petite-maitresse?) of art deco.

Tamara de Who? What, you're probably wondering, does she have to do with Andy Warhol? Only that hers is a cautionary tale for all artists who, scornful of culture's so-called eternal verities, claiming (or feigning) indifference to the judgment of posterity, remain feverishly in thrall to the passing fads and fancies of their period.

This is surely true of Warhol. For all the post-modern conceptualism of his work, for all that his indefatigably replicated Maos and Marilyns obliged us to reconsider the traditional values, codes and practices of the art world, his imagery is meaningless when detached from its glitzy socio-cultural context. His was the triumph of signature, not style, over substance.

Whatever his ostensible subject-matter, be it a Campbell's Soup can or an electric chair or Jackie Onassis, the message emitted by his paintings or prints was always the same: "This is an Andy Warhol." Appreciation of a Jasper Johns, say, requires no foreknowledge of the artist's appearance, milieu or lifestyle, but it's extremely unlikely that anyone ignorant of Warhol's could even begin to comprehend what he was up to.

Tamara de Lempicka, too, was an artist whose portraits now tell us nothing of her sitters except that they once sat for Tamara de Lempicka. And since such artistic circularity fatally leads to pattern-making, and pattern- making just as fatally to prettiness, it's not surprising that her formerly lauded individuality has now been subsumed in the shared sensibility of a decorative movement.

In her case, the movement was art deco. In Warhol's case, it will be ... what? Art postmo?