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August 15, 2011 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Breaking the Mold

It was the late 1920s and Paris was in uproar. It was no small thing to rally a city that in the last decade had seen Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s drunken literary romps and Picasso and Braques’ artistic iconoclasm.

Tamara de Lempcka however, was something different. Her sexy and voluptuous modernist style wasn’t used, like Picasso’s was, to provoke and challenge, but to ferment and enhance her racy subject matter. Lempicka was bisexual, and unlike the famous Italian Renaissance painters she studied and admired at the Louvre, she wasn’t interested in embedding secret phallic symbols in her work, but rather, to let her bombastic sexuality carry itself to every corner of the canvas. In the history of queer art there had never been anyone quite like Lempicka, quite so aggressive and uncompromising—the antithesis of those cheeky Renaissance men dropping painterly clues for the likes of Dan Brown to pick up and misconstrue.

Of course, that isn’t to say that the depiction of queer subject matter in the Renaissance is uninteresting. The Renaissance was by no means a time of sexual tolerance, but homosexual relationships between men of certain classes were tolerated, though in a don’t ask don’t tell way (think Maverick and Iceman a la Top Gun). Michelangelo Buonarroti’s work is an excellent gateway to understanding Renaissance societal and artistic approaches to homosexuality. Michelangelo had an eye for the homoerotic; arch your head skywards in Sistine Chapel and between the annoying camera flashes and screaming museum wardens you might just notice the rippling beauty of Adam reaching out at God’s hand. Other famous examples of Michelangelo’s appreciation of the idealized male from include the famous ‘David’ statue in the Uffizi and his numerous sketches and cartoons that play on witty phallic imagery. Michelangelo’s delicate homoeroticism is a window into his world. He comes close to telling us everything, to showing us what we so crave to see, but he never quite says it. From what research material survives, we know that Michelangelo practiced a monk-like celibacy, which some have interpreted as a symptom of his own personal struggle with his sexuality and the confusing and often repressive religious society in which he kept company.

It is precisely this lack of polite deference that attracts us to the work of Tamara de Lempicka. Her bold bisexuality runs in every stroke of her impressive oeuvre. Born in partitioned Poland in 1898, she waited only 16 years to find and marry the ‘most handsome bachelor in Warsaw’, Tadeusz Lempicki. Fleeing the Russian Revolution, Tadeusz and Tamara found themselves in 1920s Paris; an ideal place for Tamara to hobnob with the Lost Generation, but not for Tadeusz to find a job. Tamara took to cocaine, motherhood and painting, first her friends and lovers, and later the recently deposed European royalty who had made Paris their home (obviously oblivious to what Parisians do to deposed royalty). Her subject matter is unashamedly sexualised. Sexuality isn’t embedded in the subtext, it is the text. In paintings like Four Nudes, she gives her subjects the entire canvas, their wonderfully modernist, cylindrical limbs—beautifully graded, like Cezanne if he’d been given an airbrush and a picture of a Ferarri—arch in ecstasy, their modernist geometry practically bulging and spilling out into our world. If Lempicka could barely contain her sexuality within the canvas, we can read that she had no shame in being who she was when it came to the world outside her painting. From her famous, Four Nudes to Beautiful Rafaela, a reclining nude to her developed and complex Spring 1928. This era is a crowning achievement for an artist and for queer art that had for too long been hidden and sanitized.

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