A Passionate Portrait Of An Artist And Her Muse

Dec 31, 2011
Originally published on December 31, 2011 10:05 am

You've probably seen the paintings — women, often nude, always glamorous, the epitome of Jazz Age elegance in Paris in the 1920s, done with a particular cubist, finished fashion. The art deco painter is Tamara de Lempicka, and she's the subject of a new novel by Ellis Avery.

The Last Nude imagines a hidden affair behind one of de Lempicka's most critically acclaimed works. The novel explores the relationship between the painter and Rafaela, the model featured in several of de Lempicka's works from 1920s Paris.

It was de Lempicka's 1927 work, La Belle Rafaela, that started Avery on her journey. "It's ravishing," Avery tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "It's luminous. It's brilliant. It's in landscape rather than portrait. It's this beautiful, luscious, big woman who's on her side, she's nude, she's draped in red, she has her arm behind her head, and she looks ecstatic."


Interview Highlights:

On the story behind La Belle Rafaela:

"The artist met the model on a walk in a public park in Paris in 1927, [and] took her back to the studio. This girl became her model and her lover, and they produced six paintings together over the months that followed.

"... What was incredibly moving was ... the very last painting she was working on when she died in 1980 was a copy of this same 1927 beautiful Rafaela. So 53 years later, this girl was on her mind."

On the kind of character Avery wanted Rafaela to be in the novel:

"I wanted her to be earthy, matter of fact, relatively comfortable with her sexuality, although this experience with Tamara is completely new to her. She was meant to be in an arranged marriage with someone back in the old country, back in Sicily, and she really didn't like the idea. She had seen a Chanel dress back in the Bronx, and she thought that was the most gorgeous thing she ever saw in her life, and when she hears that it's from Paris, that's the place she's got to go. So she has this tough side, but then she's also very, very young. She's 17 years old, and when she falls for Tamara, she falls like she's never fallen before."

On the relative openness about same-sex relationships in 1920s Paris:

"[In] the 1920s, because of the war, there was this feeling of liberation and nihilism at the same time, where people felt like all of the rules that kept us down before turned out to have been in vain ... and I think that they felt license to do things that they had — prior to that — felt obliged to hide or not do."

On why, after having written most of the novel from Rafaela's point of view, she brings Tamara's voice in at the end:

"I wrote the entire novel from Rafaela's point of view, and then I was completely taken by surprise by this voice in my head that was louder, stranger, more demanding, more ruthless than Rafaela's voice — it was Tamara's voice. And I had to try writing in it, and it just came out like a roar. Like an aria. And I was excited and scared, and I just let her speak, and ... having done so, realized that something Rafaela took 120 pages to say, Tamara could say in two lines. And that meant that I wound up cutting the book by a full quarter."

On experiencing de Lempicka's paintings up close:

"Not only did I get to see the paintings that inspired my novel back in 2004, just last month in November I got to go to Sotheby's ... [to see] the painting that's the cover of my book, The Dream, where Rafaela is facing the viewer directly. She's got a gray and green background behind her. She looks trusting and sexy, and she's looking you right in the eye.

"I got to stand in front of it, and it was like basking in front of a hearth, it was so alive and vivid. I got to stand up so close that I could see the surface of the painting was lumpy and bumpy and full of impasto that really disappears when you stand 10 feet away. It looks like it's been created in the cool-headed, super-perfectly finished state of focus, but then when you're up close, you realize this painting was made in a state of passion."

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

You've probably seen the paintings somewhere - women, often nude, always glamorous, (French spoken), the epitome of Jazz Age elegance in Paris in the 1920s, done with a particular cubist finished fashion. Trust me. You've probably seen the work of the painter Tamara de Lempicka.

The novel about her is by Ellis Avery. Avery's new novel imagines a hidden affair behind one of de Lempicka's most critically acclaimed works. "The Last Nude" explores a relationship between this art deco painter and her model, Rafaela. And Ellis Avery joins us now to discuss her novel, "The Last Nude." Welcome to the show.

ELLIS AVERY: Delighted to be here. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: So, could you please talk about the painting that starts you on the journey? I believe that painting is called, in French, "La Belle Rafaela," or "The Beautiful Rafaela."

AVERY: It's ravishing, it's luminous, it's brilliant, it's this beautiful, luscious big woman who's on her side. And she's nude, she's draped in red, she has her arm behind her head and she looks ecstatic. And I thought, wow, that's quite a painting. And then I read that the artist met the model on a walk in a public park in Paris in 1927, took her back to the studio. This girl became her model and her lover and they produced six paintings together over the months that followed. And that was very startlingly sexy to me to read, but then what was incredibly moving was I looked at de Lempicka's catalogue raisonne and the very last painting that she was working on when she died in 1980, was a copy of this same 1927 Beautiful Rafaela. So, 53 years later, this girl was on her mind.

LYDEN: So, you thought, aha, that is something I must explore. Ellis Avery...

AVERY: Exactly.

LYDEN: ...would you please read a passage from your book that describes the painting that we've just been talking about?

AVERY: Gladly. (Reading) I lay supine, torqued with one hand behind my head. The other, it seemed, fingering my own breast. Looking longer, as Tamara planned it, the viewer would discover that my hand was actually lifting the barest scrap of red silk robe toward that breast, as if to mock the very idea of modesty. She cut a sleeve off the robe so she could place it on the floor beside the couch, a zone of red. As she taught me how to drape the rest of the robe across my lower legs the exact same way each time I posed, it would not simply be a robe; it would govern the colors of the painting - red robe, ochre flesh, gray couch, black background wall. She bought me a lipstick, the same red.

LYDEN: Now, this is a very hot, passionate romance between these two, and in the book most of it is told from Rafaela's point of view. You give her a whole life. What kind of person did you want her to be?

AVERY: I wanted her to be earthy, matter-of-fact, relatively comfortable with her sexuality, although this experience with Tamara is completely new to her. She was meant to be in an arranged marriage with someone back in the old country back in Sicily, and she really didn't like the idea. And she had seen a Chanel dress back in the Bronx and she had thought that was the most gorgeous thing she ever saw in her life. And when she hears that it's from Paris, that's the place she's got to go. So, she has this, you know, tough side but then she's also very, very young. She's 17 years old, and when she falls for Tamara, she falls like she's never fallen before.

LYDEN: We should say, as many people probably know, that in the 1920s in Paris, this is a time and place when a lot of celebrated people are in fact homosexual, bisexual in a way that doesn't really become quite so open until modern times.

AVERY: I agree. I think that the 1920s, because of the war, there was this feeling of liberation and nihilism at the same time where people felt like, well, all of the rules that kept us down before turned out to have been in vain in a way. Why are we the ones who lived? And I think that they felt license to do things that they had prior to that felt obliged to hide or not do.

LYDEN: Ellis, most of the story comes from Rafaela's point of view, but at the end you have a much shorter section in which we hear the painter's voice, Tamara de Lempicka's voice. Can you read us something from that?

AVERY: Gladly. (Reading) I was painting to recover a lost world and to claim a place in it. I was painting for the people who would buy my work and make me rich again. I was painting as a way to stand apart from all the penniless white Russian ballerina girls desperate to sell themselves back into nobility. There weren't enough aristocrats to marry us all and I wasn't young or thin enough to go it on looks alone. And this is the devil's part, the genius part. I just happened to be painting for anyone else who lost a world too, and because of the war that was everyone.

LYDEN: What were you hoping to add or take away from Rafaela's story? At the end, you add Tamara's voice - right at the end.

AVERY: I wrote the entire novel from Rafaela's point of view and then I was completely taken by surprise by this voice in my head that was louder, stranger, more demanding, more ruthless than Rafaela's voice. It was Tamara's voice, and I just let her speak. Something that Rafaela took 120 pages to say, Tamara could say in two lines. And that meant that I wound up cutting the book by a full quarter.

LYDEN: Have you been able to stand next to any of these paintings and look at them?

AVERY: I have. Just last month in November, I got to go to Sotheby's, where the painting that's the cover of my book, "The Dream," where Rafaela is facing the viewer directly, she's got a gray and green background behind her, she looks trusting and sexy and she's looking you right in the eye. I got to stand in front of it. And it was like basking in front of a hearth that was so alive and vivid. And I got to stand up so close that I could see the surface of the painting was lumpy and bumpy and full of impasto that really disappears when you stand 10 feet away. It looks like it's been created in this sort of cool-headed super perfectly finished state of focus, but then when you're up close, you realize this painting was made in a state of passion.

LYDEN: Writer Ellis Avery. Her new novel is called "The Last Nude." Ellis, it's been a great pleasure speaking with you.

AVERY: A great pleasure speaking with you, Jacki. Thank you so much.

LYDEN: And you can read an excerpt of "The Last Nude" and see the painting that inspired the novel on our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.