This week Sotheby’s announced that it will auction a recently rediscovered painting by Tamara de Lempicka, an artist who worked up a mild form of Cubism into a major Art Deco shtick. That’s not to say that her paintings aren’t effective in their way. As period pieces, they’re triumphs. The work in question, Nu adossé I from 1925, is testament to de Lempicka’s ability to model form. The nude isn’t just sculptural, she’s built like the elegantly curved architecture of the same period. Everything—the chair, the drape over her lap, her bobbed hair—looks like masonry.
Even though she covers herself with demurely crossed arms, her gaze could burn holes through fabric. If it looks like the artist had a predilection for strong, bosomy girls, well, there’s a reason for that.
Ellis Avery’s latest novel, The Last Nude, is an engaging work of historical fiction that tells the story of Rafaela Fano, whom de Lempicka painted, then bedded, then used like a theatrical prop as she circulated in Paris’s gay subculture and schemed to secure her artistic and personal future. De Lempicka would have created Nu adossé I two years before she met Rafaela, but I asked Avery for her thoughts on the new-found work, which, according to Sotheby’s, disappeared shortly after its first exhibition in Milan in 1925 and resurfaced when its owner contacted the auction house late last year. Could it have some relation to the nudes of Rafaela?
“She certainly liked painting fleshy young women,- said Avery. “And she does seem to be revisiting the pose of Nu adossé I when she paints Le Rêve two years later,- referring to the painting of Rafaela that adorns the cover of The Last Nude. “It’s interesting to think of Nu adossé I as a warm-up for Le Rêve. I think the similarities give credence to my sense that Tamara found Rafaela more interchangeable than Rafaela found Tamara.-
This contemplation of art, and its believable transformation into character, makes The Last Nude the delight that it is. Avery takes what little is known about the historical Rafaela and turns her into a flesh-and-blood woman who at times is more dimensional than the artificial creature into which Tamara has styled herself.
Before entering Tamara’s studio, and from there the debauched social whirl surrounding it, Rafaela and her (platonic) girlfriend Gin survive by agreeing to be kept by a series of rich, adulterous paramours in exchange for an apartment, pretty dresses, and pocket money. These arrangements are already coming undone at the beginning of the story when she meets the stylish, high-society Tamara, who, in a historically plausible scenario, is cruising for girls in the Bois de Boulogne on the pretense of walking the family greyhound. It’s not much of a family. Monsieur de Lempicka is in Warsaw, and their daughter is left with her grandmother all day ostensibly so Tamara can work. After modeling once, Rafaela, short on money, is obliged to a sorry episode of prostitution, thus prompting her to overcome her unease in posing for Tamara.
Soon she has moved into the role of muse and lover. As a 17-year-old American and the child of a suffocating family of Italian tailors, she is, despite her various means of survival, as innocent as fresh linens. Her initiation into personhood takes place at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, run by (the real-life) Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, who are patient with her gaffes (“What’s Vermeer like?- she asks Sylvia, thinking him to belong to the circle of James Joyce) and encouraging of her talents as a fashion designer. By dint of keeping her ears open at the bookstore, Rafaela can list every famous lesbian couple in Paris.
Tamara, meanwhile, has gotten the idea to have Rafaela pose nude, live, at parties in order to promote the coveted canvases that she has been painting from Rafaela’s delicious poses. Two battling collectors, the Baron Raoul Kuffner de Dioszegh and Dr. Pierre Boucard, each pathetic in his own way despite his power and wealth, maneuver for access to them. Rafaela has fallen quite in love with Tamara—the question on her mind, but not only hers, is what Tamara plans to do next.
In the last chapters, the point of view switches from Rafaela to Tamara, now old and widowed, living in Mexico among a coterie of caretakers and effete nobles and still thinking of herself as Polish royalty and consummate seductress. But the tone of conversation surrounding her work has reversed, from outlandish praise to apologetic appreciation. Avery, to her credit, has recognized the limits of the artist’s achievement and has styled this into a fitting conclusion for Tamara and symbolically for Rafaela as well.
And what of those limits? All works of art are doomed to look of a piece with their time of creation. The great works transcend their time by touching upon our common experience of humanity. Avery gets this precisely right: De Lempicka didn’t possess enough humanity to accomplish that transcendence. Her art, and to a great extent her life, was devoted to surfaces. But given enough polish, a surface can become refulgent, even seductive. Nu adossé I, which goes on the block at Sotheby’s on May 2, proves as much.