25 April 2017

My favourite Art Deco portraitist - Tamara Lempicka

Maria Gorska (1898-1980) was born into a very comfortable Russian family somewhere in the Empire. After her mother and father divorced, her grandmother sent her to boarding school in Lausanne. Maria wintered with grandma on the French Riviera and summered in St Petersburg with her Aunt Stephanie and her millionaire banker husband. Two nice lifestyle standards for the teenager to aim for!

In 1914, Maria spotted a handsome man at the Opera and decided she would marry him; it turned out to be a lawyer named Taduesz Lemp­icki (1888–1951). Two years later they were married in fashionable St Petersburg with her banker-uncle providing the dowry. As Lempicki had no money of his own, he was delighted to marry this young lass. A year later, Taduesz was arrested by the Bolsheviks; Tamara bravely had him freed, flashing the officials with her charms and using the help of the Swedish Consul. The re-united couple fled to Paris, along with many other upper class Russians escaping the Revolution.

In Paris and now called Tamara de Lempicka, the refugee studied art with Andre Lhote, and enrolled at Academie de la Grand Chaumiere. She became a well-known portrait painter with a distinctive Art Deco manner. Quintessentially French, Deco was the part of an exotic, sexy, and glam­orous Paris that epitomised Tamara's living and painting style. Unlike Picasso’s random art, Lempicka’s style would be seen as Soft Deco i.e novel, clean, elegant and exact.

Montmartre was becoming too expensive and too crowded, so most artists gradually moved south. Mont­parnasse had wide boulevards and great light. And there were still many small court­yards. Paris was the centre of the world for art creation and the ideal meeting place for the artists - Lempicka, Jacques Lipchitz, Tristan Tzara and Piet Mondrian were near neighbours, producing a unique and colourful style.

Young Woman in the Green Bugatti, 1925
private collection, Switzerland
Encouraged by necessity and the modern trends of people like designer Coco Chanel, the New Woman could drive a car herself. 

, 1925
The flat and square dresses of the 1920s provided an ideal canvas to display Art Deco taste. Skirts were shortened and the female figure became formless and androgynous - the waistline dropped to the hips and did not return to its natural position until the 1930s. Nylon, satin, silk and crepe were the most popular materials used to make shaped dresses. Short tubular dresses, long cigarette holders, cloche hats, bobbed hair, plucked eyebrows, bands of diam­ond brace­lets and long, hanging earrings were loved. Social­ly it was the age of the Flapper, a young woman who went to parties without a chaperone, smoked cigarettes and drove cars. Tamara Lempicka made it her own.

The female silhouette was slim, tall and elegant, ins­p­ired by Hollywood films. Girl In Green With Gloves 1929 (Musée National d'Art Moderne Paris) was probably de Lem­picka's most fam­ous painting that clearly epit­omised the Deco style and modernity. The fabric and hair combined sharp lines and flowing curves.

In Portrait of Madame M 1930 (private collection), Tamara demonstrated her fashionable sense, sleek and seductive. Some cur­v­es were back and they were emphasised by the use of fabrics cut on the bias. Early on hemlines dropped to just above the ankle and remain­ed there until WW2. Neck­lines were lowered; shoulders were squ­ared. Dress waists returned to the natural waistline. Fuller skirts were accentuated a small waist and min­imised the hips. Dress bodices were designed with inset pieces and yokes. Necklines were dr­amatic, with wide scallop-edged or ruff­l­ed collars. Skirts were also designed with great detail. Upper skirt yokes were used, design­ed in a v-shape. The skirt bottom often had pleats or gathers.

Girl In Green With Gloves 1929 
Musée National d'Art Moderne Paris

Hollywood and F. Scott Fitzgerald popularised sporty outfits for golf, ten­nis, swimming; similarly clothes and hats were designed for travelling in ships, trains or motoring in streamlined cars. With freedom of move­ment a priority, designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Patou, Madeleine Vionnet and Gab­riel­le Chanel created style for the modern wo­m­an in the fashion capital of the world, Paris.

Tamara de Lempicka definitely moved in smart and intellectual social circles! In the 1920s she became closely associated with some of my all-time favourite women in the inter-war literary set, especially Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. It probably didn’t matter to Tamara that her husband divorced her in 1931 in Paris.

Art Deco made great progress in fine arts and industrial designs, based on simple format, clean lines and viv­id colours. The improvement of technology, especially in industrial products like cars, ships and trains, emphasised stylised angular forms. Tamara de Lempicka found soul mates in fashion illustrator Erte, glass artist Rene Lalique and graphic designer Cassandre.
Portrait of Madame M, 1932
sold by Christie's New York in May 2009 for $6.13 million

Being a bisexual woman, de Lempicka's works reflected a glorification of the female form. From the pages of women's magazines to the salons and counters of emporiums to the set of design of Hollywood films, the Art Deco style was used to market modernity and elegance. Tamara sold her portrait art to the rich aristocracy of Paris and fetched huge prices. She painted portraits of writers, entert­ainers, artists, scientists and many of Eastern Europe's exiled nobility.

de Lempicka had 3 fashion imper­at­ives: simple cubist lines, as in Woman Wide Brimmed Hat 1934; clear, glowing colours; and a strong int­er­pretation of the female form. She was the demonstrator of the female form in 1930s Art Deco cloth­es - sleek and seductive, abstract-ish and modern.

de Lempicka herself received acclaim for her cool Garbo-esque beauty, her parties and love affairs. Her beauty and opinionated nature also increased her celebrity. Her style only declined as conservatism started to challenge the feminist advances she had championed. The Art Deco woman, that was once an object of desire, was seen to regress toward demeaning caricatures of unbridled sexuality.

In 1934 de Lempicka married Baron Raoul Huffner (1886–1961), one of her earliest and wealthiest patrons and a recent widower. When WW2 broke out, the couple moved to Beverly Hills in America, and she became the Favourite Artist of the Holly­wood Stars.

The Baron and Tamara moved to New York City in 1943, and continued painting in the old style for a while. Tamara decorated the apartment with the antiques she and the Baron had rescued from his Hungarian estate. And when the war was over, she reopened her famous Paris studio in the rue Mechain.

La Musicienne 1929
was at Scheringa Museum in Spanbroek

Tamara de Lem­picka was a true icon of the inter-war era, a woman of great beauty, great tal­ent and notorious sexual tastes. Her paintings were glossy, elegant, jazzy and chic like fashion photography in the magazines of the time. And better still, her successes as an artist funded a great hedonistic lifestyle. Her portraits of writers, entertainers, artists, scientists, industrialists and Eastern Europe's exiled nobility will last forever.

It took until 1966 for Musee des Arts Decoratifs to mount a commemorative exhibition in Paris, re-creating a serious interest in Art Deco. And Alain Blondel opened Galerie du Luxembourg and launched a major retrospective of Tamara de Lempicka. But it was too late in her career. In 1978 she moved to Mexico and died in 1980.

In 2009 masked gunmen stole art from a Dutch museum. Police said several robbers threatened a guard with a gun before making off with two paintings. The rob­bers a work by surrealist Salvador Dali. And they took La Musicienne 1929, a de Lempicka oil painting that showed a woman in a vivid blue dress playing a mandolin instrument. It had been a treasured painting.

22 April 2017

Guy Fawkes and his 12 Catholic co-conspirators

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”

Even though in childhood I really did not understand why we remember the infamous gunpowder plot, it was always my favourite night of the year. Every father in Australia, even those who normally did not organise fun activities with their children during the year, part­icipated in the bonfire building. Only in the late 1970s was the pub­lic sale of fireworks banned across Australia, to prevent injuries and bushfires. The ban ruined Guy Fawkes Night here.

Guy Fawkes Night aka Bonfire Night was and is the anniversary of the foiling of the Gun­powder Plot on 5th November 1605. The plot was centred around a group of Roman Catholic revolutionaries, furious at the persecution of their co-religionists in England. After 45 years of persecution during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the plotters had hoped their struggles would end once King James I took the throne in 1603. Certainly James was a Protestant, but the Catholics knew that James had had a Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots. And James had himself  made informal overtures to Catholic powers like Spain, Savoy and Tuscany.

In 1603, in Hampton Court, James was known to be receiving some leading Catholic gentry who brought a petition for toleration. And the treaty negotiations between Spain, England and Flanders were concluded in Aug 1604, but there was still no mention of toleration for the English Catholics.

Disenchantment quickly with King James set inRobert Catesby and a group of his Catholic friends created a plan to kill the king, Prince of Wales and all the parliamentary ministers who had oppressed Catholics. The plotters wanted to blow up the Palace of West­minster during the state-opening of parliament when everyone would be there.

Guy Fawkes

Apart from the plot leader Robert Catesby, the other members of the group were Thomas Bates, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen and John Grant. Each plotter had a specific role. For example the Wright brothers travelled to Holland to recruit Guy Fawkes. And they visited the King of Spain to ask for his support in the expected revolt that would follow the killing of King James I. Thomas Percy (who had contacts at the court of King James), hired a cellar beneath the House of Lords.

Sir Everard Digby and his servants would wait at the Red Lion Inn. As soon as he learned of the plot’s success, Catesby would leave London for the Midlands where the men would mastermind the next stage of the plot - the Catholic Rising. Thomas Percy helped fund the group and secured the leases to certain properties in London. When the plotters successfully kidnapped King James' daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Percy would remain in London and capture her brother, Prince Henry.

Guy Fawkes was an explosives expert, called in by the others to set the fuse. Fawkes was a Protestant Englishman who converted to Catholicism following his father’s death. He left England to join the mercenaries fighting for the Spanish against the Protestant Dutch. By renting a house near the palace, Fawkes could smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder under Westminster and prepared to blow it to oblivion. Modern scientists have calculated that the blast have obliterated an area 500 ms wide.

Towards the end of the planning, some of the plotters worried about killing parliamentarians who had actually supported Catholicism. But the scheme was only revealed when an anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle (1575–1622) in the House of Lords, warning him not to go into Parliament. I am assuming the plotters did not want to kill Lord Monteagle since he was married into many Roman Catholic fam­il­ies, including being the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the plotters. In fact we need to note that ten of the plotters (except for Guy Fawkes, Sir Everard Digby and Thomas Bates) were all related to one another, either by means of blood or through marriage.

The timing of this warning to Lord Monteagle was perfect - Fawkes was caught red-handed in the cellars by the guards. After his cap­ture he was tortured till he gave up his fellow plotters. All of them died, either shot on the run OR put on trial for high treason, convicted and then hung, drawn and quartered in Jan 1606. As Fawkes awaited his punishment on the gallows, he leapt from the platform to avoid having his testicles cut off, and broke his neck. Fawkes was only 35 when he died.

From left: Thomas Bates; Robert Wintour; Christopher Wright; John Wright; Thomas Percy; Guy Fawkes; Robert Catesby; Thomas Wintour
engraving, artist unknown, c1605

James gave thanks that God had delivered all of them. Then religious services, emotional sermons and bell ringing were heard across the country, celebrating England's deliverance by divine providence from a fiendish Catholic scheme.

Soon Bonfire Night was celebrated by the lighting of bon­fires, the burning of guys/effigies of Guy Fawkes and the explos­ion of fireworks. The celebration was designated in law by King James I a few months after the plot failed and remained on the statute books until 1859. Also by way of symbolic commemor­ation, the yeoman of the guard searches the (modern) cellars of the Houses of Parliament in time for the state-opening each November.

Only one memorial came as a shock to me. The 13-strong group of plotters included brothers John and Christopher Wright, from the village of Welwicks in Yorkshire. There is now a Coreten steel statue dedicated in 2013 to Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, John and Christopher Wright, installed at the village entrance near the Wright brothers’ home. It is very tall (2.4m)! Since the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot is still marked in Welwicks each year by Bonfire Night, the statue was probably built as a stark reminder of the reality of a historical specific event.

I have some last questions. Since the gunpowder plot of 1605 was seen as a dangerous challenge by the Catholic Church to Protestant Eng­land, why was the focus of the plotting limited to Guy Fawkes? Why was the role of the other 12 plotters largely excluded? And what about all the other well-connected people who aided the plotters with money, supplies and advice? Did the near-catastrophe in West­minster give some insight into how Catholics were suffering, leading to less severe penal laws against the practice of Cathol­icism in England? Does the reigning monarch only ent­er Parliament once a year even today, because of some lingering fear that remains since 1605?

To analyse the 13 major plotters and four other minor participants, see The Co-Conspirators.

18 April 2017

Mata Hari - seductive dancer in Paris or German WW1 spy?

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (1876-1917) came from Leeuwarden, born to her Dutch father Adam Zelle, a failed merchant. Her Javanese mother Antje Zelle fell ill and died when the four children were still at school. The grieving children were packed off to live with various relatives.

In the mid-1890s, Margaretha answered a newspaper ad seeking a bride for Rudolf MacLeod, a wealthy but brutal military captain based in the Dutch East Indies. The teenager sent a seductive photo of her­self and despite their age difference, they married in 1894. During their volatile, alcohol-affected marriage, Margaretha had a daughter who survived and a son who did not.

By the early 1900s, Mata Hari's marriage had failed. Her hus­band divorced her and disappeared with their daughter, so Margaretha moved to Paris. There she became a professional dancer, teacher and translator, and when she was hungry, she became the mistress of a French diplomat.

In Edwardian Paris, Margaretha's exotic looks were perfect. She created the Temple Dance by drawing on cultural and religious symb­olism that she had picked up in the Indies. She called herself a Hindu artist, draped in veils that loosely covered her body. In one exotic garden performance, Mata Hari appeared with a naked bottom on a white horse and breasts covered with beads. Completing her dram­atic transformation from military wife to an Indonesian princess trained in exotic rituals and Hindu dances, she called herself Mata Hari.

Clothes had always been one of Mata Hari’s passions, and she spent a great deal of money on them after she became famous. Erte, the brilliant designer who later worked for the Russian Ballet, designed his first theatrical costume for Mata Hari. Mata Hari’s other couturieres included Georgette Brama, Louise Emery and Lucille, Lady Duff Gordon. They knew Mata Hari as a demanding customer who preferred her dresses to be as revealing as possible, and she was acknowledged by many to be the best-dressed woman in Paris. She was photographed by Paul Boyer, Lucien Walery and Leopold-Emile Reutlinger, the leading theatrical and fashion photographers of the day.

During this period, Mata Hari tried repeatedly to enter the world of legitimate dance, opera, and theatre. In 1910, she performed a dancing role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Antar”. In 1912, she performed in Gluck’s opera “Armide” and Antonio Marceno’s ballet “Bacchus and Gambrinus” at the prestigious La Scala in Milan

Mata Hari got off her white horse,
with a naked bottom and breasts covered with beads

Mata Hari’s dances drove the Paris salons wild, then Berlin, Vienna, Madrid and other European capitals. Reporters across Europe described her as "slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair." "She was feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thous­and curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms."

But youth doesn’t last forever. As younger dancers came to fame, Mata Hari's bookings reduced. She boosted her income by seduc­ing government and military men; sex was purely for money. Despite the grow­ing ten­sion in Europe pre-WWI, her lovers included Ger­man officers.

Despite the Netherlands remaining neutral in WW1, her relentless travelling and random sexual liaisons attracted attention from British and French intelligence who carefully surveilled her.

At 40 Mata Hari fell in love with a 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff, in 1916. During their courtship, Masloff was sent to the Front, where an injury left him blind in one eye. Det­ermined to earn money to support him, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France from Georges Ladoux, an army captain who needed her “contacts” for French intelligence.

Mata Hari insisted that she planned to use her connections to seduce her way into the German high command, get secrets and hand them over to the French. So when she met a German attaché, she began tossing him bits of gossip, hoping to get some valuable information in return. Instead, she got named as a German spy in communiqués he sent to Berlin which were immediately caught by the French.

Some historians believed that the Germans suspected Mata Hari was a French spy and subsequently set her up, deliberately sending a mess­age falsely labelling her as a German spy. Others believed that she was in fact a German double agent. In any case, the French auth­or­it­ies arrested Mata Hari for espionage in Paris in Feb 1917. They threw her into the filthy prison at Saint-Lazare, where no family or friends were allowed to visit.

During lengthy interrogations by the military prosecutor Captain Pierre Bouchardon, Mata Hari seemed uncertain of which events in her life actually happened and which she had made up over the years. Eventually she admitted too much: A German diplomat had once paid her 20,000 francs to gather intelligence in Paris. But she had al­ways remained faithful to France - the money was compensation for furs and luggage that had once disappeared on a departing train while German border guards hassled her. "A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!" she repeated many times.

Mata Hari's trial for espionage came at a time when the Germans were advancing. Real or imagined spies were convenient scapegoats for explaining military losses, and Mata Hari's arrest was one of many.

So when Mata Hari (?accidentally) admitted that a German officer paid her for sex, the French prosecutors depicted it as espionage money. And money she claimed was a regular stipend from a Dutch bar­on was portrayed in court as coming from German spymasters. Sadly the Dutch baron was never called to testify before the military tri­bunal. Nor did they call Mata Hari's maid, who handled the bar­on's payments. Worst of all, she had the three most criticised character flaws - she was foreign, divorced and had sex out­side marriage. "Without scr­up­les, accustomed to make use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy," concluded Bouchardon.

The military tribunal deliberated for only 45 minutes before return­ing a guilty verdict. The defendant couldn’t believe it ☹. She made a direct appeal to the French president for clemency and was horrified when he too turned her down.

Mata Hari was executed by firing squad on 15th Oct 1917. Dressed in a French uniform, she had arrived at the Paris execution site with a minister and two nuns and walked quickly to the kill-site. She then turned to face the firing squad, removed her blindfold and was instantly killed.

It was an improbable end for the exotic dancer and courtesan, whose name came to stand for sexy spy who charmed war secrets from her lovers. At the time, The New York Times merely called her "a woman of great attractiveness and with a romantic history."

What do people believe now? Mystery and intrigue still surrounds Mata Hari's life and alleged double agency. Many people saw the 1931 film Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo as the courtesan-dancer-spy and Ramon Novarro as her Russian flier-lover, called Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff in the film. The conclusion seems to be that Mata Hari was thoughtless in her selection of sexual partners during WW1, but certainly not working as a spy for the Germans (or for anyone else). The military files used against her were filled with information gaps, exaggerations and blatant lies.

This year is the centenary of Mata Hari’s execution, so there is a renewed interest in her story: Paulo Coehlo’s new novel The Spy, Ted Brandsen’s ballet by the Royal Dutch Ballet, and an exhibition at the Fries museum. Perhaps Mata Hari's letters, edited by Lourens Oldersma offer a more human side to this woman, as a victim of domestic abuse and historical circumstances.