Tamara de Lempicka’s best-known work is a self-portrait. The renowned artist, wearing a silver helmet and a matching scarf, is at the controls of an emerald green Bugatti, his gloved hand resting nonchalantly on the steering wheel of the sports car.
She is glamorous, confident and bossy; she is visibly comfortable being the center of attention. In fact, she appears to be staring at the viewer, staring at others while simultaneously being seen.
The piece, created in 1928 for the cover of a fashion magazine, has since been hailed as the definitive image of the modern, automobile-era, Art Deco style woman. Is it this important that Lempicka didn’t actually drive a glamorous green Bugatti, but a small yellow Renault instead?
As she told Houston City Magazine in 1978, “I painted the car green because I like it better.”
The audacity to legitimize her own gaze – in her work, among her lovers, on herself – was revolutionary for a female artist in the Paris of the 1920s. One hundred years later, this singular audacity shines through in “Lempicka”, a Broadway musical, as ambitious and complex as the painter it features.
“For its vibrancy, its story has been under-told,” director Rachel Chavkin told The Times. “Tamara was a living intersection of so many movements and events of her time: she was queer, she was the breadwinner of her family, and she came of age between the two world wars, the exact moment when the women finally broke out of a whole series of historical constraints. She was really in this relentless quest for herself, her voice and her desire to have it all, which marked me and still resonates today with the women.
Running through July 24 at La Jolla Playhouse, the show begins with Lempicka and her aristocratic husband seeking refuge from the Russian Revolution in Paris, where she rose to fame as a sought-after portrait painter among members of high society. Throughout the crazy decade, she became known for her impeccable techniques and her mixture of influences: cubism and neoclassicism, immobility and speed, past and future.
Similarly, the “Lempicka” score mixes contemporary musical theatre, power ballads and electro pop bangers. A song, performed by George Abud like Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, it looks like it could have been borrowed from Lady Gaga or Robyn’s setlist.
“Tamara has drawn inspiration from many, many styles from all eras, but never with the intention of emulating just one,” explains composer and book co-author Matt Gould. “She was always trying to create something new. It just felt right to do the same thing musically.
In recent years Lempicka’s paintings have become incredibly sought after; at an auction in 2020, one of his pieces sold for $21.1 million. . Her pieces have inspired high-end fashion collections, featured in advertising campaigns and appeared in Madonna music videos. The appeal of her work endures because, dressed or not, her sitters were always strategically positioned, as if claiming both canvas space and the attention of anyone who saw her.
“The way she found inspiration in the body, with those sharp angles and long lines, is so elegant and beautiful,” says choreographer Raja Feather Kelly. “It’s similar to a gestural technique called epaulment, a French term for when ballet dancers move their shoulders to play with light and create depth. Our dancers use it with real precision to recreate Tamara’s paintings on stage.
Lempicka remains radical in overturning the conventions of the female nude – a category long dominated by male artists – and framing her subjects as willing, empowered beings. Take Rafaela, the sex worker who repeatedly modeled for Lempicka: Based on Artsy’s Alexxa Gotthardt, “Lempicka celebrates feminine sexuality and allure in his portrayals of Rafaela, portraying her as virile, voluptuous, and in full control of her own pleasure; in ‘La Belle Raphaëlle,’ the subject writhes in delight as her hand grasps her own breast.
The musical reenacts the first time Lempicka painted Rafaela. Portrayed by Eden Espinosa and Amber Iman, respectively, this initial creative collaboration leads to a romantic relationship – and a closer to Act 1 in which a delighted Lempicka acknowledges her changing sexual orientation. The production also recreates Le Monocle, the historic nightclub that was a haven for queer Parisians, and includes singer and openly gay club owner Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson) as a supporting character.
Yet Lempicka remains married to Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky), not only because coming out would kill her career, or worse; on the contrary, her desire for her muse takes nothing away from her attraction to her husband. This framing is critical, as it’s rare for a major musical to focus on a bisexual protagonist, especially one who makes this self-discovery as an adult.
“It was very important that we didn’t tell the story of a woman who was a closeted lesbian because she was afraid or didn’t want to leave the father of her child – no, she had many affairs with men and women throughout his life,” says lyricist and book co-author Carson Kreitzer, who is also bisexual.
Gould, who is gay, adds, “It’s not a musical where the conflict is about a love triangle and who she chooses. But instead it’s: I love them both, so why can’t I have both? »
Just as the real figure painted his sitters with obvious dimension, “Lempicka” aims to faithfully represent his multi-faceted subject – an ambitious request, since the artist “was such a creature of shrewd reinvention and deliberate myth-making”. , says Kreitzer. She was notoriously vague about her age, often called her daughter her sister, and asked those close to her to call her “Cherie” rather than “Mom” or “Grandma”.
Lempicka has been portrayed on stage before. An immersive multi-story theater experience named after him took place in Los Angeles for nine years. But it wasn’t really about her, as it was based on a book about her visit to the infamous estate of Gabriele d’Annunzio, written by the Italian poet’s housekeeper. “It’s not my job, my art,” Lempicka said of the book in 1978. “All people will remember or know about me are the lies of this servant.”
Kreitzer and Gould worked with the artist’s estate, now led by great-granddaughter Marisa de Lempicka, to portray her with as much nuance and interiority as possible, but let’s admit that’s only an introduction to his life and legacy. Still, it’s a promising start.
“I had conversations with people who didn’t know who she was, saw the show and then dove deep into her beautiful work,” Espinosa says. “My greatest hope for this show is that Tamara will be honoured, known and revered – not only as the artist that she was but also as the woman that she was – because she has deserved it for so long. It makes me so happy to hear that people now want to know more about her.
Where: Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037
When: 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Ends July 24
Tickets: From $25 (subject to change)
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org
Duration: 2h30 (1 intermission of 15 minutes)
COVID Protocol: Masks are required indoors for all performances (check website for changes)