The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery

The Art of Künstlerromane

Because I like art, I like “Künstlerromane” which are fictional depictions of the coming-of-age of artists or geniuses – real or imagined, and their personal and social environments. Some of the best modern Künstlerromane about painters, published in the last decade that I’ve read are:

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier, about Johannes Vermeer, as subtle and delicate as the painting itself;
  • In the Kingdom of Mists, by Jane Jakeman, about Claude Monet, crossing murder with art;
  • The dense and brilliant The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, about a collector of a painting by Carel Fabritius;
  • The Pornographer of Vienna by Lewis Crofts, about Egon Schiele – very disturbing stuff, and
  • Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia, about  post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi – well researched and very well retold.

So Avery had some stiff competition  with this one. I had laboured through her novel set in Japan, The Teahouse Fire, reviewed here, which had won her the Lesbian Debut Fiction prize at the Lambda Literary Awards, and the Barbara Gittings Literature Award for best gay or lesbian novel in the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards.

Setting and characters

“…for my inspiration…I liked to go out in the evenings… and have a good-looking man tell me how beautiful I am or how great an artist I am – and he touches my hand … I loved it! – I needed that. And I had many, many.” – Tamara De Lempicka

Disappointingly, this novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, is less about the art of Tamara de Lempicka, than about the affair between her and her model named Rafaela, the nude of the title. It is distractingly erotic, heavy with lewd, lingering glances, fighting-and-making-up, jealousy, overwrought emotion, etc. I would’ve liked to learn more about the art, the technique, the legacy of De Lempicka. On the other hand, looking at De Lempicka’s “Jazz Age” work now, famously posterized, I would not say they are masterpieces worth analyzing to the nth degree, but perhaps, like lesbian affairs back in the 1920s, they were outrageous and daring at the time.

Little is known about the model called Rafaela Fano, so Avery did a good job of building a shadow into a character.

Still, the tone for her interpretation of the events that led to those nude paintings are predestined by De Lempicka’s own description of when she saw Rafaela the first time, which was a straightforward expression of painterly lust – for instance:

“‘Suddenly,’ Tamara would say, ‘I become aware of a woman walking some distance in front of me. As she walks, everyone in the opposite direction stops and looks at her. They turn their heads as she passes by. I am curious. What is so extraordinary that she is doing this? I walk very quickly until I pass her, then I turn around and come back down the path in the opposite direction. Then I see why everyone stops. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen—huge black eyes, beautiful sensuous mouth, beautiful body. I stop her and say to her, ‘Mademoiselle, I’m a painter and I would like you to come pose for me. Would you do this?’ She says, ‘Yes, why not?’ And I say, ‘Yes, come. My car is here.’

‘I took her home in my car, we had lunch, and after lunch, in my studio, I said, ‘Undress, I want to paint you.’ She undressed without any shame. I said, ‘Lay down on this sofa here.’ She lay. Every position was art—perfection. And I started to paint her, and I painted her for over a year.’” (Kizette Foxhall de Lempicka. Passion by Design: the Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987, p.80).

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