The Lost Generation and the Art of Living

[11 October 2007]

By John Davidson

Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy
Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts (8 July – 11 November 2007)
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut (26 February – 4 May 2008)
Dallas Museum of Art (8 June – 14 September 14 2008)

These days Sara and Gerald Murphy are best known as the models for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonists in Tender Is The Night, while few, beyond the immediate realm of art critics, are familiar with Gerald’s career as a painter. Now, as its title suggests, Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy at Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, seeks to recall the art and extraordinary lives of a golden expatriate American couple who stood at the centre of modernist European culture in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

In fact, Sara and Gerald Murphy inspired an astonishing array of the century’s greatest writers and artists. While indulging Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s childish antics, providing encouragement and financial assistance to Ernest Hemingway (who later rewarded them with paranoid vitriol in A Moveable Feast), they helped float, inspire, and otherwise sustain the likes of Picasso (whom Sara sketched at Cap d’Antibes), Ferdinand Leger, Man Ray, Cole Porter, John Dos Passos and Dorothy Parker, to name but a few.

One question this absorbing exhibition seeks to answer is whether Gerald was an artist of significance in his own right, or if the Murphy’s were but creatively-inclined dilettantes whose wealth enabled them to patronize great artists, and to be indulged by artists in return. New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, in an overwhelmingly positive review of this show, writes admiringly of Gerald Murphy’s work, but then dismissively adds, “It is by a man who wasn’t really an artist.” Schjeldahl’s view recalls a character Fitzgerald described in one of his earlier novels, The Beautiful and Damned: ‘He had all the tastes and weaknesses of an artist, but without the creative inspiration.’ But then, if that is the case, what of the work that stands before us?
This exhibition represents only the second time all of Murphy’s extant paintings have been brought together, and includes pieces on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Dallas Museum of Art. Murphy’s output was small, abbreviated even, and only seven of the 14 pieces he’s known to have completed survive. All the works here were painted in France, and yet his vision is unmistakably American. As exhibition curator Deborah Rothschild notes, “The items Murphy chose to depict were the first of a certain kind of modern object: the ubiquitous mass-produced personal convenience that turns consumers into walking advertisements.”

Utilizing a bright, spare palette, Murphy sectioned his canvases with clean, sharp lines, and a number of them might easily have been produced by screen-print. Razor (1924) describes a box of matches, a fountain pen and a safety razor. Cocktail (1927) invokes a box of cigars, a corkscrew, a wine glass, a lemon, a cherry and a cocktail shaker. In both style and content then, Murphy’s work pre-sages Pop art and modern graphic design. 

Gerald was first inspired to study painting [under Natalia Gonchorova, who’s Picking Apples (1909) set the price record in June of this year for a painting sold at auction by a female artist], having stumbled upon a modernist exhibition whilst wandering the streets of Paris. “If this is painting,” he told Sara, “then this is what I want to do.” For a time, Picasso thought him the best American painter of his age, and Murphy’s compositions show the influence of the Spanish master, as well as that of Gris and Leger (with whom Murphy would come to form a close friendship).

A generous selection of each artist’s work appears in the exhibition also, and one is struck, for example, by the fact that while Leger’s paintings seem to have faded or grown musty with age (visually, if not in conceit), Murphy’s canvases might have been cooked-up just yesterday. The very best of his work remains fresh, visually arresting, and strikingly contemporary. Elements of Wasp and Pear (1929), Gerald’s last completed piece, wouldn’t look out of place in an MTV segment, and if this may not exactly constitute a ringing endorsement, nor suggest Murphy’s right to a place in the pantheon of High Art, it does suggest a prophetic vision, expertly communicated.

Wasp and Pear (partial) ©2002 MoMA, New York

Wasp and Pear (partial) [Art © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY]

And yet the work is not without allusive depth, either. Rothschild makes a convincing case that Watch (1925), a six foot square painting that makes use of 14 shades of gray and details the inside mechanism of a watch, may be read as a somewhat cryptic self-portrait. Gerald was known to be self-conscious of his round Irish features, and he maintained a punctual and orderly life to the point of obsession. But he also spoke frequently to intimates of his great ‘defect’, an allusion to a bisexuality he struggled to suppress throughout his life. On occasion he would make references to his ‘main-spring’ being broken, and when Rothschild invited a time-piece expert to view Watch, she learned that the rendering was meticulously correct except for a separation between the main-spring and the centre wheel—the result of which would have been to render the watch defective.

Yet for all the due attention given here to the paintings, it is the ephemera from Gerald and Sara’s personal lives which provide the show’s emotional punch.  The Murphy’s rise and fall echoes that of various Lost Generation contemporaries, several of whom suffered personal calamity as the last celebratory air went out of The Jazz Age. Until 1929, the Murphy’s lived generously and well, conscientiously cultivating a sense of “life as it ought to be, not as it is”. Unfortunately, “life as it is” stepped in abruptly, shattering their self-made idyll.

Like millions of others, the Murphy’s finances took a substantial hit in the Crash of ’29, but of vastly greater disturbance was that their young son, Patrick, was diagnosed with tuberculosis that same year. The Murphy’s responded by packing their belongings and surrendering their beautiful Antibes sanctuary, repairing to a sanatorium in Switzerland. For the next five years they devoted themselves entirely to Patrick’s recuperation, and eventually returned to the States in 1934.

Fate was not yet even half finished with them, however.

With Patrick seemingly on the road to recovery, their eldest son, the previously robust and athletic Baoth, contracted spinal meningitis and died suddenly, two months shy of his 16th birthday. Within two years (in 1937), Patrick suffered a relapse of tuberculosis, and he, too, passed away. Surely no-one who has suffered such blows could again find belief in “life as it ought to be”. For the Murphy’s, from here on out there was only “life as it is”.

The second half of this exhibition is given over to expertly collated mementos from Sara and Gerald’s life together, items that trace their courtship, their friendships with the famous and celebrated, and the aftermath of their devastating losses. Pieces of particular interest include a sumptuous portrait of Sara, painted by William James Jr., which captures the sitter at the height of her youth and beauty. There are family photographs taken by both Man Ray and Lee Miller, and also a heartbreaking pair of drawings—Leger’s likeness of Patrick, and Patrick’s likeness of Leger—each drawn while Patrick was in bed, inching ever closer to death. Patrick’s drawing is remarkably assured for a young boy, and along with a delicate pencil self-portrait by Sara, suggests that skilled draftsmanship ran through the Murphy veins. Leger’s portrait of Patrick hauntingly depicts a young boy slipping from the edge of his own life.

Sara and Gerald Murphy

Sara and Gerald Murphy
Photo © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/
Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

And then there are the letters of bereavement, most notably from Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Each in its way is instructive as to the character of the man. Hemingway, as always, is stoic and clear-eyed, and writes, “It is not as bad for Baoth because he had a fine time, always, and he has only done something we all must do.” And then there is Fitzgerald, the sensitive poet, who poured more of his art into letters than almost any other writer you might care to name, “Fate can’t have any more arrows in its quiver for you that will hurt like these… The golden bowl is broken indeed, but it wasgolden; nothing can ever take those boys away from you now.”

Significantly, Gerald never painted again after Patrick fell ill. It is as though he had dealt his ambitions in art, traded them for his son’s life, only to have fate renege on the deal later. There was perhaps a single brief moment when he truly believed in his talent, promising Hemingway that before he was through he’d paint at least one masterpiece, one work to be “hitched up to the stars”.  Yet Gerald Murphy never quite felt he belonged in the same firmament as the geniuses he numbered amongst his friends. For Gerald, the genius he and Sara put into the art of living was insufficient.

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