She was inseparable from the car, like one of those Odd Rods cartoon characters you got in packets of bubblegum: guys like Chrome Coffin, who drove along swinging his shovel, and Motor Mouth, whose key feature was just his massive mouth. Being half car, half woman, the woman in the green Bugatti was compact enough to drive wherever she wanted. She didn’t have to stick to the road like all the other cars. She could drive on the footpath, shuttling along like a fancy clothes rail. She could drive directly into the pub and park up at the bar. She could drive up and down between the shelves at the town library, or slowly around an exhibition at the museum. She’d gaze at the art while doing an expert three-point turn with one leather-gloved hand on the wheel. She was so good-looking that the officials just let her glide serenely around the place.
Her beauty was connected to her sense of absolute stillness. The woman in the green Bugatti would never move her face; that much was clear to me. Her red lips would be forever pressed to release their colour, her eyes forever narrowed like two cigarette ends. What was it that made me believe a face must be motionless to be beautiful? Why could I not see that the woman in the green Bugatti – Tamara de Lempicka’s self-portrait – was something out of a nightmare? I really thought that her beauty would be marred if she laughed or frowned or, worse, stood up out of the car. A car was one of a number of good ways for a beautiful woman to transport her person. Others included travel by rowboat, dancing very slowly while waving ribbons around, and ice-skating. Using any of these, you could glide smoothly from position to position without upsetting your face.
My mother had a walking, talking doll that stood next to the telephone on a sideboard in the hallway. Patricia was made of peach-coloured plastic, with blonde curls and blue eyes that clicked open and shut. According to someone who knew the value of these dolls, she was worth a lot of money. She used to talk, my mother said, and even thrust herself forward leg by leg, but now she only made a bleating noise when you hung her upside down. Patricia’s face reminded me of the woman in the green Bugatti – she was so placid, so waiting to be looked at. When I was younger, the soft clicking of her eyelids when I moved her indicated to me that her eyes were behaving as eyes should. I loved how she could be held for as long as I wanted; unlike a cat or a dog, she would never wriggle to get free.
It was my high-school art teacher, Mr Kerr, who’d lent me the book about art deco painters in which I’d found Lempicka. What I loved about Lempicka’s women was the urgent richness of their bodies, their poses, their clothing.They were caught in full, hard bloom. Each body could have been a single fused piece of material, poured like liquid metal into a dress and left to solidify. But when you got to the eyes, everything seemed to burn out, absolutely blank, as if short-circuited by the intensity of their shining selves. I found the blankness in the women’s eyes impossibly beautiful: it looked like a moment in between thoughts, a space in which you could look into their eyes and they would not look back. Some of them didn’t even have pupils.The eyes rolled ecstatically back into their heads so you only saw the whites, which looked bluish, chilly. That was beautiful too, another kind of pure, unseeing moment.
In his classroom rounds Mr Kerr would stand beside my desk in his dark overalls, watching kindly as I blobbed oil paint on a canvas and tried to emulate Lempicka’s style. Once I painted a woman in a blue dress standing in front of a row of crooked, anonymous buildings. It took me ages to get the dress right. I wanted the body to look cylindrical, sort of chrome-like, as Lempicka’s bodies did, but instead my woman looked scrappy, like a cormorant standing on a rock. The neck had come out too long and I couldn’t get up the courage to do the face. I’d given her a severe bob, below which the face was waiting for its features. But Mr Kerr murmured, shaking his head, ‘Oh, it’s very Lempicka. Very Lempicka. ’As he drifted on to the next desk, I decided to leave the face blank. It was an artistic statement. It was also easier.
Mr Kerr was a sculptor and a woodworker, so his art either had meaning or it was useful. In preparation for the turn of the millennium, he was making something he called the Millennium Rock. It was a large piece of sandstone he’d chipped and polished into a wobbly egg shape and positioned upright on one of its pointed ends on a hill at his house in the countryside. When the sun rose on the morning of 1 January 2000, it would shine right through a gap in the middle of the rock.The first light would be captured in full for a few seconds before the sun rose beyond it. I admired this but also found it deeply frustrating. You couldn’t ever see the whole sculpture, I thought. You couldn’t hold all of it in your head, because the moment you had it, it was already disappearing.
I came back again and again to the woman in the green Bugatti, and I still do, trying to understand what caught and held me. She was a grown-up and a driver, an independent woman of the twenties. But she was also like a diving helmet in a sh tank: decorative, left there to have all the fuss play out around her. Lempicka had painted the steering wheel on the left side of the car, instead of the right where it should’ve been, and I figured she’d painted the woman first and then hadn’t wanted to move her; she was perfect where she was, and so the car grew out of her. And you can tell Lempicka wasn’t really interested in the car. Even the door handle looks pretend, like a door handle painted on a theatre set. I liked that. I liked that the woman wouldn’t be able to get out of the car. She’d just have to keep gliding, on and on through that unending moment. Her eyes would never find mine. I could look at her for as long as I pleased.