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by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
"Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy," July 8-Nov. 11, 2007, at the Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown, Mass.

It’s worth a summer trip to Williamstown, Mass., to see "Making It New: The Art & Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy." Icons of the Jazz Age, the Murphys radiated megawatts of charm. Generous, ebullient, and charismatic, to their legions of friends they also seemed to epitomize romance. Supporting players in the grand modernist saga of 1920s Paris, these wealthy young Americans always had style. They threw great parties, decorated their houses with élan (black floors, white walls, tons of flowers), and exposed Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Fernand Léger to the pleasures of beach picnics and American canoeing at Cap d’Antibes in the summer of 1923.

The Murphys studied abstract painting with Natalia Goncharova and her husband Michael Larionov, who introduced them into Sergei Diaghilev’s circle, where they met Jean Cocteau, Picasso, André Derain and Léger, who would become a true mentor to Gerald.  As volunteers they repainted some of the battered scenery for the Ballets Russes with brushes as big as brooms. They appeared elaborately costumed at the fabled private balls thrown by Count Etienne de Beaumont and introduced ragtime, American popular songs and spirituals to Erik Satie and Les Six.

Gerald’s beloved Sara, who never seriously pursued her own painting, was considered one of the great American beauties of her generation. She became muse to Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her magnetic hospitality, along with her spontaneity and extraordinarily adventurous spirit, drew people to her for life. The Murphys were part of a post-war generation strenuously rebelling against American cultural philistinism and provincialism, rejecting the Puritanical social codes of their parents, even as they lived off the money provided by the labors of their commercially successful fathers. (Sara’s made a fortune from lithographer’s inks; Gerald’s family business was the Mark Cross leather goods company.)

When the devaluation of the franc magnetized the appeal of Paris after World War I, Sara and Gerald took their three small children and left America for the city of light in 1921, just in time to become part of les années folles. Sara’s $20,000 a year -- equal to around $250,000 today -- allowed them to live very well in France. The history of their circle, which Malcolm Cowley memorably christened "The Lost Generation," shaped subsequent perceptions of modernism’s heady, decadent climate of the fantastically creative 1920s.

The Murphys were nowhere as rich as Misia Sert or Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac, both lavish patrons who underwrote Diaghilev’s music, sets, and costumes and repeatedly bailed him out with generous checks. However, as letters and notes in the exhibition reveal, they were unfailingly generous to their artist, writer and musician friends. Their American informality also led them to live in much more intimate contact with the Left Bank artists and expatriate poets and writers than the cultural doyennes of the Right Bank ever did. Perhaps their culminating moment was when the elegant pair threw a rowdy banquet on a barge in the Seine for the July 1, 1923, premiere of Diaghilev’s Les Noces.

The Murphys never fail to fascinate, and their wonderfully glamorous and finally tragic chronicle is catnip to writers, and also to curators, as the exhibition at the Williams College Museum definitively proves. Retiring senior curator Deborah Rothschild spent some four years organizing the current show, which goes to obsessive lengths to contextualize and document Sara and Gerald’s contributions to the vibrant artistic and literary ferment of the 1920s. Rothschild’s express aim is to offer an objective portrait of the Murphys’ broad interests in, and their impact on, the art, music, literature, dance and poetry of their time as well as to present a balanced account of their achievements and to shed "light on the multiple ways they served as models for ‘the best that life could be’." 

The exhibition breathes new life into a story that previously has been told and retold.  In 1934 their friend F. Scott Fitzgerald used the couple as his inspiration for characters Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night. (The novel, which displeased the Murphys, created tensions between them and the writer, though they continued to support Fitzgerald through his years of depression, alcoholism and decline). Ernest Hemingway, another friend to whom they were always enormously generous (both personally and financially), later savaged them in A Moveable Feast, his bitter memoir of his early Paris days. Art critic Calvin Tompkins initially rescued the couple from obscurity in his 1962 New Yorker magazine profile and then in his 1971 book, Living Well Is the Best Revenge. Amanda Vail perceptively pursued the story in They Were So Young, her celebrated 1998 double biography, which provides a great deal of the information also covered by the exhibition. (Both writers have contributed new essays to the Williams College Art Museum’s excellent catalogue).

The exhibition is crammed with letters, theatrical programs, posters, photographs, drawings and ephemera that document the wide range of the golden couple’s contribution to the era. And the show puts to rest previous insinuations that Gerald’s artistic efforts were merely those of a privileged dilettante. In fact the highlight of the exhibition is the rare opportunity to see seven of Murphy’s paintings brought together in one place, making it possible to gain a deeper sense of his creative achievement. (He only completed 14 works; out of the 14 seven are now lost). Two of his now-vanished major works, Boatdeck (1924) and Portrait (1929) are presented in facsimile reproduction.

Seen assembled here, his small but highly professional body of work is notable for its meticulous, rather somber synthesis of Cubist and Constructivist ideas. For beneath his bourgeois American upbringing and Ivy League polish Gerald Murphy was in fact a born artist, who expended his distinctive talents on organizing and living an estheticized life, both before and after finding and forsaking his vocation as a painter. The way Gerald routinely flattened and magnified his meticulously drawn forms in a reductive adaptation of Synthetic Cubism reveals an immediate debt to Léger, Picasso and Juan Gris. And Murphy’s style is distinctly similar to Amédée Ozenfant’s schematic 1926 still life ((hanging near his paintings for convenient comparison).

Murphy’s canvases are graphic, painstakingly precise, and architectural. His color is grayed or brilliantly poster-like. His subject matter, as in Razor (1924) and Cocktail (1927), deconstructed and monumentalized humble objects of daily life. His work is not really groundbreaking. The paintings are cold and mechanistic almost to a fault. Yet the handful of those still extant look very fresh almost a century after he made them. His most startling and original contribution is the large scale of his work -- a scale clearly influenced by his scenery painting experience with the Ballets Russes. The graphic rendering and huge size of his 18 x 12 foot Boatdeck created a scandalized sensation when it was shown at the 1925 Salon des Independents. Critics accused it of being a giant architectural drawing rather than a painting. It is also very interesting to see his efforts in stage and costume design.

Early on, Léger was impressed enough to recommend Gerald to the Swedish Ballet. In 1923 the company commissioned him to create the scenario, stage sets and costumes for a new ballet reflecting contemporary American life. He got his Yale classmate and close friend Cole Porter to compose the jazzy music. Murphy designed a pretty fabulous set that used blown-up, satirical newspaper headlines ("Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic") as a backdrop and created some clever costumes for the ballet he called Within the Quota. It comically portrayed the adventures of a Swedish immigrant who meets a procession of American types and ends up becoming a movie star, its décor very much in the spirit of Diaghilev’s 1917 Parade. The exhibition’s extensive documentation of the ballet includes a video of an amusing later recreation of the production -- it’s a bit similar to Agnes De Mille’s later Rodeo.

Extensive private ephemera, family memorabilia and a touching video, featuring the surviving Murphy daughter Honoria, help to personalize the Murphy saga. The heavy documentation makes this show almost more of an excursion into cultural history than it is an art exhibition. The show and its catalogue also confront very personal aspects of the Murphys’ life, including Gerald’s previously under-explored struggle with a narcissistic sense of inner emptiness and his bisexual impulses. As she searched through the Man Ray archive of some 15,000 photographs (many of which have never been shown or documented), Deborah Rothschild found his images of a nude Gerald Murphy sailing his yacht Picaflor in 1925. These photographs are now clustered on one of the gallery walls. Cultural historian Kenneth Silver makes much of them in his essay exploring what observers now consider Gerald Murphy’s apparent chronic attraction to other men.     

Another interesting art historical tidbit the show offers up is that some of these Man Ray snapshots certainly look like the basis for sketches by Picasso. (Done when in the early 1920s he and Olga visited the insouciant Americans in Cap d’Antibes). Said Rothschild, "He [Picasso] made these drawings just days after the photographs were taken." My favorite item in the exhibition, though, is Hemingway’s grumpy letter to Fitzgerald criticizing his depiction of the Murphys in Tender Is the Night. "I liked it and I didn’t like it," the letter starts out.

Life as an artistic exercise is no match for reality. The Murphys’ blithe European existence was brutally cut short when their son Patrick was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the summer of 1929. Diaghilev died in August. The depression hit in October. The Murphys took Patrick to Switzerland, sold their Paris apartment and later the Villa America, their happy retreat in Antibes. Eventually Gerald went home to New York to manage Mark Cross, his depression-buffeted family company. By 1937 both sons had died. The elder, Baoth, died suddenly of meningitis in 1935. Patrick expired, worn out by his disease, in 1937. Both boys never made it past age 16. The pitiless shadow of these tragedies gives retrospective gravitas to the exhibition, especially with the inclusion of tender photographs of the Murphy’s two beautiful and vigorous young sons that Lee Miller took before the blows of bereavement fell.

Gerald finished his last painting, the psychologically complex Wasp and Pair in 1929. He never painted again after Patrick got sick. Sara soldiered on doing volunteer work and caring for her friends. Much later, in the early 1960s, as he and Sara were leaving Cheer Hall, their old Dutch house in Sneden’s Landing, N.Y., they found some of the snapshots from the fabulous 1920s. Gerald wrote to his friend, poet Archibald MacLeish, "What an age of innocence it was, and how beautiful and free!"

"Making It New" also appears at the Yale University Art Gallery, Feb. 26-May 4, 2008, and the Dallas Museum of Art, June 8-Sept. 15, 2008

By the way, if you’re going to Williamstown, a little-known place to check out along the way is the Bauhaus-inspired gem of a house that belonged to those Park Avenue Cubists, George L. K. Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen. They built it on their vast family estate in Lenox, Mass., in the heart of the Berkshires. Morris, a wealthy Yalie and a pupil of Léger’s (like Gerald Murphy), had just returned from Paris when in 1930 he built his studio based on Ozenfant’s Corbusier-designed Paris atelier. The artistic couple added the house, which sits on 46 acres, in 1941.

George and Suzy’s paintings and frescoes are prominent throughout this small but perfectly proportioned house and studio. It’s also filled with beautifully spare modernist furniture as well as works by Picasso, Braque, Léger and Gris. The stucco and glass-block house, whose interiors have just been restored under Mark MacDonald’s expert direction, exists as a perfectly preserved moment of high and idealistic modernism. (MacDonald is the legendary modern furniture dealer who was one of the founders of Fifty/50.) The house includes pieces by Paul T. Frankl (creator of skyscraper furniture), Donald Deskey and Gilbert Rohde.

The Frelinghuysen-Morris House, 92 Hawthorne Street, Lenox, Mass., is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm through Labor Day. Admission is $10 for adults, $3 for children.

ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is an art critic who lives and works in New York City