My favourite painting: Leonie Benesch

Actress Leonie Benesch, star of the new BBC adaption of Around the World in 80 Days, chooses a beautiful Art Deco image by Tamara de Lempicka.

Leonie Benesch on Tamara in a Green Bugatti by Tamara de Lempicka

‘Tamara herself in the driver’s seat, looking inaccessible, wealthy and in charge. Painted in 1929 during the Roaring Twenties and commissioned by Die Dame, a famous German magazine, it is an homage to women’s independence.

‘I look at it, 96 years later, and it makes me feel as if I can do and achieve anything I put my mind to, despite or even because I am a woman. I’m mesmerised by the bold colours and shapes, the ease and coolness it radiates. She looks at me as if to say: “Of course you can. Don’t be ridiculous” and so… I shall.’

Leonie Benesch is an actress and a star of the BBC’s upcoming adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days.

John McEwen on Tamara de Lempicka 

Art Deco, named after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (1925), was a celebration of post-First World War decorative art with an emphasis on luxury. Appropriately, this self-portrait was commissioned for the cover of the fashion magazine Die Dame, to symbolise ‘women’s liberation’, also a product of the war. Ironically, considering de Lempicka was Paris-based, France did not grant female suffrage until 1944. Germany and the UK (full suffrage 1928) gave women the vote from 1918.

Tamara Gurwik-Górska was born in Warsaw or possibly Moscow — accounts vary — her father a Jewish merchant, her mother the daughter of Polish bankers. At the age of 10, disgusted with a commissioned portrait of herself, she drew her sister, an artistic impulse compounded when, after feigning illness to skip Swiss boarding school, she toured Italy with her grandmother.

Her parents divorced and she married a Polish lawyer, Tadeusz Lempicki. In post-war Parisian exile, her husband’s indolence and the birth of her daughter made her decide to make a living as an artist. She trained with the fashionable André Lhote and soon made her ‘Art Deco’ reputation with erotic nudes and portraits of the high society in which she moved. ‘I was the first woman to make clear paintings, and that was the origin of my success… I was searching for a craft that no longer existed.’

As her daughter said, she had a ‘killer instinct’, steely professionalism combined with style and a taste for drugs and bisexual affairs. A rich second husband and the renewed war exiled her to the US and Mexico. Her Art Deco pictures, personified by this self-portrait, became unfashionable in her lifetime. No longer — her current auction record is £16.3 million.