Cityscapes and Sexuality in Tamara de Lempicka’s Adam and Eve
Painted in 1931 amongst the rapidly industrialized, fast-paced, technological Western world, Tamara de Lempicka’s Adam and Eve blends cold modernity with raw sexuality. This nude portrait of two young lovers emphasizes the warmth and beauty of natural physicality: one human body embracing another. These figures are set against a steely background of skyscrapers; here, the painting contrasts two opposing themes: modern technology and primitive sexuality. In her article “Tamara de Lempicka: 1898-1980,” Kim Hodge describes Lempicka’s nude portraits as “valiant, heroic, intrepid or, to use today’s vocabulary, rich with modernity, dazzling and glamorous” (6). In her sensuous painting Adam and Eve, Lempicka illustrates the classic couple against a dark, Art Deco-style cityscape, depicting the nude figures as modern, openly sexual and desirable, yet unmistakably timeless. By juxtaposing natural physical beauty and open sexuality with an ashen cityscape, Lempicka emphasizes the historical power of sexuality on humanity, from its biblical beginnings to a contemporary reality.
Beginning in 1925, a new artistic movement combined elements of various existing movements and rejected basic utilitarianism in lieu of ornamentation. The movement spanned international studios and museums, profoundly affecting the decorative arts, aptly earning the name Art Deco. In her book Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, Laura Claridge defines Art Deco style as a combination of several other art movements; she declares Art Deco as a “popular, stylized form of Cubism…. If considered an avant-garde movement within Modernism itself, Art Deco assumes the stature of Dadaism, Surrealism, or Expressionism; if viewed as a symbol of modernity, it becomes a minor genre subsumed under the larger rubric of Modernism” (112- 113). The art movement itself employs crisp lines and stark symmetry, geometric forms and luxurious curves to create purely decorative pieces; these pieces included architecture, interior design, furniture, graphic design, and the fine arts. In painting, the formal characteristics include these essential lines and curves, moving beyond the artistic fundamentals, often “exaggerating recognizable shapes into a voluptuous or skeletal mannerism, emphasizing formal symmetry and parallels, returning to single perspective, conveying modern life through sharp angles and generous curves” (Claridge 113). Often a porcelain-like surface or a metallic sheen causes the subjects in paintings to glow, further emphasizing the broad use of similar colors within strong, dark lines. Beyond basic shapes and standard figures characteristic of previous fine art movements, Art Deco, especially that of Tamara de Lempicka, reflects “technology (cars, trains, urban life) and the new cult of the individual (portraiture) and making references to mythology and the classical world that sharply contrasted with the chaos wrought by World War I” (Claridge 113). This new embrace of modern technology brought individualism to women through many avenues such as personal automobiles and skyscrapers, but also promoted a return to nature, as depicted by Lempicka through her nude portraits. In her painting Adam and Eve, Lempicka draws upon this acceptance of technology and the importance of the individual to portray a foreground of classical lovers in a sensual embrace, layered over a grossly modern background.
Adam and Eve, 1931, Oil on panel, 116 x 73 cm, Private collection (Tamara 108-109)
Second only to the nude figures, the cityscape in Adam and Eve represents the enormous shadow of modern technology: “behind their intertwined bodies loom the skyscrapers, casting their menacing shadow, threatening to engulf, but never quite destroying, this divine moment of Paradise” (Claridge 181). As the fast-paced life of the late 1920s swept across the Western world, Lempicka painted a scene where this steely attitude of expansion threaten overcome natural beauty, both that of the physical world and the sensual realm. In a neo-Cubist and Ashcan style, the buildings represent a new-age Garden of Eden where “the only trees for [Adam and Eve] are modern, steel and concrete ones” (Hodge 4). In this hard landscape, lovers must remove themselves from the inflexibility of modernity and return to the classical sensuality, maintaining their mythological beauty and individualism, despite the pressures of their omnipresent industrial environment.
Sensuous curves and glowing flesh tones are vibrant in the figures of Adam and Eve. The lines and curves emblematic of the Art Deco style create a shapely woman in a hesitant embrace by her athletic — perhaps Herculean — lover. In his review of The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris between the Wars, Ute L. Tellini argues that “the figures are powerful and voluptuous, if relatively impersonal, and engaged in their own pleasures” (45). This impersonal tone comes not from their relationship, but from the environment in which they are forced to meet. The city stands cold, while their bodies emit warmth. Lempicka has
imbued Adam and Eve with a potent sexual charge, her biblical subject matter signaled a turn toward a historical, cultural narrative. The fall of innocence, typically emphasized in depictions of sin’s origin, prove tangential to her interpretation. Against a background of skyscrapers, two muscular, beautiful adults express an unflinching sexuality, their hard geometric bodies echoing each other as interlocking parts of a whole, implying the irrelevance of blame and the lack of loss. (Claridge 180)
Encapsulated in a cold landscape of modern technology and industrialization — symbolized by biblical sin — the lovers express themselves in a basic, biological manner. The city is modern and mechanic, but the apple is organic, clearly noting a return to a natural environment. Emotion governs a realm where technology has no place, where sexuality, not machinery, is the basic form of communication.
In her splendid, natural beauty, the woman in the portrait becomes a “vision of a modern Eve biting into the forbidden fruit-Eve liberated, her hair crimped in the style of our own emancipated times, naked, yet chaste in her nudity, and therefore all the more desirable” (Claridge 181). Despite the harsh cityscape in the background, clearly not the expected Garden of Eden, Eve emanates natural femininity; from her voluptuous curves to her bright red lipstick and nail polish, her wide hips to round breasts, her physical body invites masculine praise. Unlike Adam, a “sun-bronzed athlete” (Claridge 181) with a hidden face, Eve embodies the natural woman, both contemporary in style and cultural in aesthetic. According to Tellini, Lempicka herself embodied “the image of la femme moderne. The mass media showed the modern woman as self-assured, capable, aggressive, adventurous, independent, and sexually active” (44). This adventurous, sexual nature of the artist erupts in Lempicka’s painting Adam and Eve with the female figure. The woman in the painting has a choice to reject the advances of the man, yet with the presence of the apple, the forbidden fruit, temptation will overcome chastity to promote a modern, adventurous woman.
In a similar manner to that of Adam and Eve, Lempicka’s exquisite painting Andromeda depicts the mythological temptress chained to a cityscape. Both paintings promote the voluptuous curves of porcelain female bodies, classical in physicality and nomenclature. The stark contrast of the female bodies to the gray skyscrapers fundamental to technological expansion encourages femininity, natural beauty, and sexuality to radiate from the prominent figures. Despite the confining nature of the city with its concrete wall, the women of Lempicka’s work exude sexual confidence and independence, setting them apart from their cold surroundings.
In a 1960s interview regarding her work, Lempicka declared: “I paint someone as they really are, but inside too, not only their outside. I have to use my intuition and all the talent I have to capture the real person, which is more important than painting with no meaning” (qtd. in Claridge 111-112). Rather than painting a chaste Adam and Eve stunned by the appearance of the serpent, Lempicka illustrated a return to sensuality — to love — despite the corrupt qualities of their manufactured environment. Arguably, Adam and Eve may communicate “the possibilities of female sexual agency and fantasy at a time of rapid industrialization” (Tellini 45). Perhaps inherently sinful in nature, this femininity is embodied by the confident lines and powerful curves of the Art Deco style, promoting natural sexuality in the midst of modern technology.
Claridge, Laura. Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1999.
Hodge, Kim. “Tamara de Lempicka 1898-1980.” Inferno University of St. Andrews, School of Art History, Postgraduate Journal 7.25-30 (2003): 1-7.
Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco Icon. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2004.
Tellini, Ute L. Rev. of The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris between the Wars, by Whitney Chadwick and Tira True Latimer. Woman’s Art Journal Spring-Summer 2005: 44-45.