THE TIMES SATURDAY MAY1 2004
My brush with fame
How do you take on the stage role of one of the
Twenties’ most exotic artists? Valerie Grove explains
The scene is the galleried hall of a vast Edwardian house in Hampstead – grand piano at one side, rows of chairs for the audience. A small stage is constructed from the window seat at the vaulted window overlooking tall trees in the garden. Enter a glamorous blonde in a turban who glares at the audience and says crossly “Oh, you’re still here.” (The conceit is that the audience is an intrusive and unwelcome magazine interviewer.) Oh, well, she shrugs, she can talk while painting – “and I need to paint for my sanity.”
She dons an artist smock over her gown, sits at her easel and proceeds to create a portrait of a woman in deft strokes of oil paint, all the while chatting over her shoulder about life in the beau monde that was Paris in the 1920s. While painting she sings a Polish song, a French torch song (Mon Homme), one by Kurt Weil, and Cole Porter’s I’ve got you under my skin.
This is Deco Diva, a one woman show about the artist Tamara de Lempicka, devised and performed at home by Kara Wilson, alias Mrs Tom Conti. The Contis’ house with its ready made auditorium, has been the venue for most of her performances in the past six years. But this summer she is giving her Deco Diva at the Royal Academy, where 56 of Lempicka’s voluptuous and evocative paintings – two of them belong to Barry Humphries – will be shown for the first time in an exhibition subtitled Art Deco Icon. It is sure to take London by storm just as de Lempicka (pronounced Lempeetska) first enchanted le tout Paris 80 years ago with her powerful portraits, self assurance and allure.
Tamara de Lempicka, who died in 1980, was an exotic, enigmatic creature, née Gorska, daughter of a Polish mother and a well-to-do Russian merchant father, who arrived in Paris in 1918 with her husband, a dashing Polish lawyer, having fled St Petersburg before the revolution. Her famous self portrait features her at the wheel of a green Bugatti – she actually drove a yellow Renault – in a Hermès racing cap, with thinly arched brows, heavy lidded eyes and carmined lips: the personification of emancipated cool. She had instinctively seized on the car as a symbol of feminine independence, and it was an image that came to epitomise an era, copied in countless advertisements.
Having painted since childhood, Lempicka had a clear idea of her own distinction: “From a hundred pictures, mine will always stand out.” Many of her portrait subjects – posed on the decks of ocean liners, against a geometric backdrop of soaring skyscrapers, on ski slopes, or nakedly entwined – became her lovers, male and female. She said “I live on the fringe of society, and the rules of normal society have no currency for those on the fringe.”
Though impoverished when she first hit Paris, she made a beeline for the right people. She knew Garbo, Cocteau, Gide, Schiaparelli. People fought to be painted by her. She dressed in dazzling couture clothes: British Vogue recently did a fashion shoot based on her style, using a generously proportioned model; Lempicka’s subjects tended to be intimidating, Junoesque women with blood-red fingernails. She mingled only with the rich and aristocratic, drew a veil of mystery around her past (and her age) and gave notoriously decadent parties at her studio on the Left bank, attended by duchesses, ambassadors, poets. Portrait sittings were interrupted for “champagne, baths and massage”. She had a turbulent affair with the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and landed a wealthy Hungarian baron as her second husband. By 1939, when her portraits began to be less fashionable than abstract paintings, she exiled herself to New York and Mexico.
Kara Wilson, having impersonated Lempicka since 1998, thinks her moment has arrived. “I feel my show was just waiting for when Tamara’s paintings came to town.” Though not at all like Lempicka in person, being dark-haired, brown-eyed and Scottish, she convincingly transforms herself (with blonde wig and blue contact lenses) into the egotistical femme fatale, transporting the audience into that bygone bohemian world. The portrait she executes in one hour in front of the audience’s astonished eyes – Rafaela sur font vert or Le Rêve – is such an exact copy of Lempicka’s luminous work it is usually auctioned at the end of her charity evenings for £200-£1000. It makes a stunning show. As Lempicka, a woman whose whole life was a centre stage performance, Wilson can demonstrate her expertise in acting, painting and singing. “Lempicka may never have sung a note,” she says, “but the songs are a way of putting across her cosmopolitan aura.”
How did the actress, once more successful than her famous husband, come to be portraying the Deco Diva at her easel? Wilson (“I seem to switch careers every few years”) arrived in London from Glasgow in the 1970s with Tom Conti, but just as he was becoming a household name, in Frederic Raphael’s drama The Glittering Prizes, she gave birth to their daughter Nina. She was determined to devote herself to motherhood. In the afternoons, before picking up Nina from school, she studied painting and portraiture at Camden Art School.
She has had several exhibitions, which have sold well. “People like small, cheap paintings,” she says. One show was a series depicting Sydney’s beaches, with children’s reflections in the wet sand, which she painted while Conti was there in Yasmin Reza’s Art. “I love reflections,” she says. “And I love paintings of patches of sunlight; they make you want to be transported there.”
When the Leith Gallery opened in Edinburgh in 1996, Wilson was invited to sit painting people’s portraits in the gallery during the Edinburgh Festival and discovered that far from being put off by people watching her work, she actually painted better in public. “So, as a painter, I was obviously more of an actress.” It inspired her to devise her first one-woman show, telling the life story of the Glaswegian painter Bessie MacNicol, while she sat painting one of MacNicol’s works. “It was not easy. Sometimes I thought I must be mad, to try and paint like her and talk at the same time. But it was very successful.” Glasgow Girl ran at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997, and in New York in 1998. “At the end I stepped out of the character and told the audience that Bessie had died giving birth to her baby, at 34. People found it very affecting.”
Then her art teacher, Jack Yates, told Wilson that she should look at Lempicka. She loved her paintings at once. She researched her life in New York – Laura Claridge’s biography of Lempicka, published by Bloomsbury in 2000, had not yet appeared – and sketched out a framework for the show. For Lempicka’s accent she was coached by a Polish friend, Jadwiga Lewis, who also taught her a song by Chopin, the first in the show. Since then she has done 45 performances, producing 45 Lempicka paintings (selling most for charity). She has just heard that Lempicka’s granddaughter will be coming to see the show.
The Contis’ enchanting, light-filled house provides an ideal setting. Isadora Duncan once danced here, appropriately enough. It was built by William Garnett, the mathematician friend of Lewis Carroll, in 1902 and he named it The Wabe (as in Carroll’s “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe”) “And a lot of gyring and gimbling has gone on here over the years,” Wilson says.