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On Writing: Who Is this Temptress?


Funny how much you can learn from a question.

As you may remember from my last post, I wasn’t satisfied with the art I found to represent the seductive female. This was relative to my discussion of the character of Edwinna in my novel, The Inheritance.

The image of Lilith that I included in my post—and Lilith was Eve’s predecessor according to some stories—suggested a beauty unaware of the danger represented by the snake with which she entwines. I needed a different kind of image for the discussion, one that suggested a woman fully aware of and prepared to exploit her allure.

So I called my sister and brother-in-law for help. They are both deeply entrenched in the art world. Ann retired from the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco and Paul is an art historian. He has recently received wide acclaim for his book about a pioneering historian and curator of modern art titled Peter Selz: Sketches of a Life in Art.

I got Paul on the phone first, and he was immediately onto it. However, he was tapping into the idea of the very dark side of the feminine, and his mind traveled to images of beauties holding up the severed heads of men, of which there must be many.

“No, no,” I responded. I wanted a representation of the temptress, not a murderer.

Then Ann was on the phone. “You want a redhead,” she said. “I know what you need.” (Well, of course she would.)

Young Lady with Gloves by Tamara de Lempicka

Soon I received an email about an artist I had never heard of, Tamara de Lempicka, and in it was the perfect image, “Young Lady with Gloves.” One can almost hear the sharp intake of anxious breath among women and the sap rising among men as she arrives at the garden party.

Lempicka’s biography reveals a fascination with the feminine that vibrates in the sleek images that characterized her work in the 30s. Born in Poland, an escapee from the Russian revolution, she became the most renowned portrait painter of her generation.

Inured to wealth, she married a baron and moved about in high society in Europe and then America, a bigger-than-life personality who hobnobbed with high society and famous artists, writers, and actors wherever she lived. Although her fame eventually ebbed, interest in her work began to revive before her death in Mexico at age 82, and she was painting almost to the end.

Her life and work are relevant to my Edwinna in an unexpected way. I chose the name Edwinna deliberately to evoke the masculine, because she is slightly androgynous in her looks and appeal. I was interested to discover that Tamara de Lempicka was herself bisexual, famous for her libido and scandalous behavior. She was thus, in fact, vulnerable to the allure of the women she painted and very familiar with the desire they elicited.

Tamara de Lempicka was a fascinating personality and an extraordinary artist in a time when few women would achieve such fame. As I said, you never know where a question will take you.

You can see more about the artist at: http://www.tamara-de-lempicka.org/.

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