Steely Pretty Things

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Her portraits simply drip glamour—the wealthy and celebrated of the day posed for Tamara de Lempicka, and her striking oils capture their red lipstick, perfect nails and skin as glossy as their satin dresses. Some art authorities dismiss De Lempicka (1898-1980), a Polish-Russian painter who flourished in '20s and '30s Paris, as a purveyor of kitsch and leave her out of their histories of 20th century art. Others see her as an icon whose work captured the spirit of the Art Deco age. Not surprisingly, many of her fans today are from the glamour set: present-day collectors include Madonna and Jack Nicholson; two years ago one of her paintings (The Musician, 1929) sold for $2.6 million. To make up your own mind about her, drop in at London's Royal Academy of Arts, which is showing more than 50 of her paintings in the first major exhibition of her work in Britain.

De Lempicka and her husband fled to Paris to escape the Russian Revolution of 1917. She studied painting under the Cubist André Lhote and hoped to earn a living from her work, but she did more than merely get by. Her career took off as she managed to secure celeb sitters; her own beauty and dress sense helped her gain entry into the best circles, but she also worked long hours. Her style fused the severe with the alluring: her young women may have geometrically simplified arms, perfect cones for breasts and hair that seems sculpted from sheets of steel, but they also have large, heavy-lidded eyes and languorous bodies.

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If they're clothed, it's in the latest mode, like the sitter in Portrait of Madame M. (1930), whose dress is an up-to-the-minute bias-cut number. Lempicka's portraits aren't just fashion plates, though—she recorded her sitters' idiosyncratic personalities and features, cropping the image closely so that the figure and its costume fill the frame, sometimes leaving a small high window for a distorted view of fantasy skyscrapers right out of the 1927 German movie Metropolis.

In 1939, she and her second husband, art collector Baron Raoul Kuffner, emigrated to the U.S., and her glittering career came to an abrupt end as the Art Deco style reached its sell-by date. But she lived to see the rediscovery of her between-the-wars work in the '70s and its acclaim by a new generation, before dying in Mexico in 1980. It's said her last wish was to have her ashes scattered in the crater of the volcano Popocatépetl—a fitting gesture to end a flamboyant life.

The show runs through Aug. 30, then travels to the Kunstforum Wien, Vienna, in September. Advance bookings: tel: (44-870) 126 0268; www.royalacademy.org.uk.