Published: February 26, 2008
“Once upon a time, there was a prince and a princess, and that’s exactly how a description of the Murphys should begin,” writer Donald Ogden Stewart once observed of Sara and Gerald Murphy. Attractive, gifted, wealthy Americans with homes in Paris and on the French Riviera, the Murphys were at the center of expatriate cultural and social life during the modernist ferment of the 1920s.
Gerald (1888‱964), witty, urbane and elusive, had an innate sense of modern style, gave magical parties and was a gifted painter. Sara (1883‱975), an enigmatic beauty with a gift for friendships and who wore her pearls to the beach, enthralled and inspired such icons as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. “There was a shine to life wherever they were,” recalled poet Archibald MacLeish.
The models for the charismatic Nicole and Dick Driver in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, the Murphys also counted among their friends Fernand Leger, Serge Diaghilev, John Dos Passos, Alfred Hitchcock, MacLeish, Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, Igor Stravinsky and a host of others. Far more than mere wealthy patrons, they were creative kindred spirits whose sustaining friendship released creative energy. The result was some of the most notable art, literature, music and theater of the Twentieth Century.
The glittering and sometimes tragic lives of the Murphys and their brilliant artistic circle are rewardingly examined in “Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara & Gerald Murphy,” a fascinating exhibition on view at the Yale University Art Gallery through May 4. Organized by Deborah Rothschild, senior curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Williams College Museum of Art, where the show opened last summer, this is the first exhibition to explore the contribution of the Murphys to the arts of the last century.
“‘Making It New’ offers both a lesson in how sociability can foster creativity and an antidote to the ongoing romantic narrative of the isolated genius,” said Lisa Corrin, director of the Williams College Museum of Art. The exhibition also provides insights into the American expatriate experience and how a European-American dialogue, stimulated by such transcontinental intermediaries as the Murphys, contributed to the evolution of modernism between world wars.
An interdisciplinary undertaking, it is both an art exhibition centering on Gerald’s seven surviving paintings, plus works by Picasso, Leger, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Man Ray and other modern masters in their circle. Also displayed are set and costume décor, photographs, music, letters, film and archival material.
Born Sara Wiborg, daughter of a Cincinnati ink manufacturer, Sara Murphy was a fresh, delicate, blond beauty who spent much of her childhood in Europe, studying singing, becoming fluent in four languages, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and being presented at the Court of St James’s. She dabbled in art courses in New York and enjoyed summers at the family’s huge estate, “The Dunes,” in East Hampton, N.Y.
Tall and handsome, Gerald, the son of the head of the Mark Cross Company, a luxury-goods business, was raised in New York and graduated from Hotchkiss and Yale, where he made Skull and Bones and was voted best-dressed man in the Class of 1912.
Gerald and Sara met in 1904 and got to know each other at dances and parties in New York and East Hampton. By the time they married in 1915, Gerald was unhappily working for his father at Mark Cross. They settled briefly in Manhattan, where the first of their three children was born. After a short stint in the military, Gerald studied landscape architecture at Harvard.
In 1921, finding life in the United States constricting, the Murphys moved to France. Determined to carve out a life free from the conservative mores imposed by their wealthy families and benefiting from ample incomes, the Murphys led an elegantly simple existence; it was life as they wanted it to be. Consistent with their pared down modern lifestyle, their Paris apartment had black wood floors and white walls †and a single “artwork,” a rotating, steel ball-bearing atop an ebony piano.
Excited by Cubist paintings he glimpsed in the window of a Parisian gallery, Gerald studied art for six months with Russian expatriate painter Natalia Goncharova. Her concentration on “elementary shapes and blocks of color rather than on recognizable entities and details,” writes artist Trevor Winkfield in the catalog, “made Gerald a painter and not simply an unfocused aesthete.” Both Murphys volunteered to paint scenery for the Ballets Russes, meeting Diaghilev and other avant-garde artists in the process. “The Murphys’ life became an artistic exercise,” observes Rothschild, “informed by discipline, a keen sense of pleasure and aesthetic complexity.”
In 1923, they purchased and remodeled what became the fabled “Villa America” in Cap d’Antibes on the Riviera. The Murphys impressed Le Corbusier with their renovation of the small, seaside chalet in conformity with their minimalist predilections. Under a flat roof that served as a sun deck, the interior featured black floors, zebra rugs, numerous mirrors and glass bowls filled with flowers. The Murphys installed various American innovations unheard of in Europe, such as screen doors, electric fans and stainless steel bathroom fixtures.
In 1930, Leger designed a large (nearly 6 by 9 feet) double-sided room divider, “Large Comet Tails on Black Background,” on view in the exhibition. The screen, which marks a switch for the artist from geometric/mechanical themes to biomorphic/celestial imagery, was never installed. Gerald’s colorful, hand painted sign, “Villa America,” 1924′5, which hung at the gate of their home, is also featured.
Villa America was surrounded by seven acres of flower gardens, vegetable gardens, a citrus orchard and exotic shade trees. In their quest to make something fine and beautiful of their lives through “living well,” the Murphys created a grand playground for their children and a great place to entertain friends.
The Murphys “consciously constructed a life so perfect that, for a brief period, it became the calm center of a universe of talented and creative artists,” says Rothschild. Picasso drawings and vintage photographs help set the scene around Villa America and the beach at Cap d’Antibes. Picasso’s untitled (Pierrot and Harlequin), circa 1925, depicts a costume worn by the Murphys’ daughter in a photograph by Man Ray. Other photos by Man Ray document Gerald’s penchant for exhibitionism †sailing on his boat in the nude. Leger’s watercolor sketches of Gerald and Sara, created aboard their schooner Weatherbird, suggest their beach attire.
Encouraged by his friends Picasso and Leger, as well as the revolutionary aesthetics of Juan Gris and Amedee Ozenfant, Gerald began painting innovative works that combined realism and abstraction. To this task he brought his experiences as a product designer for Mark Cross and his bold sense of modernity. Between 1921 and 1929 he painted 14 known canvases; the seven surviving works are brought together here for the first time.
Perhaps as a carryover from painting huge theater sets, Gerald started out in Paris creating giant-sized works in the Cubist manner. His earliest paintings, now lost but reproduced in the show, were masterpieces of pared-down, machine-age simplicity: a machine portrait, “Tubines,” 1922, and images inspired by transatlantic ocean liners, “Engine Room (Pressure),” 1922, and “Boatdeck,” 1923. The size of the latter, a gigantic 18-by-12-foot depiction of funnels and ventilators, caused a stir at the 1924 Salon des Independants.
In some ways, the modern, mechanically precise style of these paintings reflected the clothing Gerald wore. As art historian Wanda Corn has observed, “Murphy’s habits of dress were those of a walking machine abstraction&⁈e was a [modern] dandy&⁛who] chose clothing with strong accents of solid color and pronounced geometrical patterns.” Indeed, a photograph of Murphy vis-a-vis Leger’s Cubist abstraction, “Man with Hat,” 1920, suggests such affinities.
Murphy came to epitomize American modernity to many Frenchmen, who admired US skyscrapers, stylish consumer products and porcelain bathrooms. He, in turn “painted things closely associated in the French mind with American inventiveness and with transatlantic modernity,” says Corn.
Thus, Murphy’s subjects ranged from a Gillette safety razor, a Parker fountain pen and a box of Three Stars safety matches in “Razor,” 1924, to mechanical innards in “Watch,” 1924 (measuring a whopping 78½ by 78½ inches), to a corkscrew, shaker, long-stemmed glass with cherry, lemon †and an open box of cigars †in “Cocktail,” 1927. “Bibliotheque (Library),” 1926′7, features books, a Roman bust, a magnifying glass and a globe prominently displaying North and South America. Several of these posterlike works, with their bold colors and humble objects, prefigure Pop Art.
In “Portrait,” 1928 (lost, but shown in a black and white reproduction), Murphy combined a profile, a huge eye, a pair of lips, three thumbprints, a footprint and fragments of a ruler into a collagelike self-portrait. Art historian Kenneth E. Silver, whose chapter in the catalog deals with Murphy’s tortured feelings about his repressed bisexuality, thinks it is “a portrait of the artist as a gay man looking out from the closet.”
Murphy’s love of gardens, flowers and nature in general animated two other, nonmechanical works, “Doves,” 1925, and “Wasp and Pears,” 1929.
In Paris in 1923, Murphy worked on the conception and stage set for an “American” ballet, Within the Quota , with the score by Cole Porter, about the adventures of a bumbling Swedish immigrant in the United States. For the set, Murphy designed an enormous blown-up backdrop of a fictional American tabloid’s hyperbolic headlines. The small collage he created for the production’s program cover features a watercolor of the newly arrived, disoriented immigrant pasted atop a photographic collage of a jumble of Manhattan skyscrapers, the Flatiron Building, an elevated train and ocean liners.
At the time, Gerald’s idiosyncratic works were praised by French critics for their inventive, American audacity, and were applauded by his friends Picasso and Leger. But the Murphys’ joyful existence at Villa America lasted only a decade. The tragic deaths of both of their sons as teenagers, the rise of fascism in Europe, their return to the United States in the Great Depression for Gerald to run the family business and his reported conclusion that he would never be a first-rate artist, prompted him to stop painting. As “a perfectionist,” Corn speculates, “he could not go forward as an artist in these new conditions.”
Murphy’s work gradually faded from public view until his pristine, meticulously painted oeuvre was rediscovered, as art historian Dorothy Kosinski describes in the catalog, in a show at the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts in 1960.
In their later years, while living up the Hudson River and in East Hampton, the Murphys continued to entertain in style, and he enjoyed, briefly, a revival of interest in his art before dying of cancer.
This exhibition, putting Gerald Murphy’s admirable paintings in the context of the golden duo’s glorious time in France, offers a comprehensive picture of them as artistic forces in their own right who helped drive the modernist movement of the 1920s. It underscores the high standing of Murphy’s paintings today. “Tiny his oeuvre may have been,” says Corn of Murphy’s work, “but what he created was remarkably fine.” Curator William Rubin called him “a major American artist.” “Gerald Murphy now looks to many of us,” says Silver, “like one of the most interesting American artists of the early Twentieth Century.” Art curator Kenneth Wayne writes in the catalog that “As precursors to Pop Art, they [Murphy’s paintings] can be considered masterpieces of American art.”
The 238-page illustrated catalog, edited by Rothschild, with essays by several scholars, is published by the Williams College Museum of Art and the University of California Press. It sells for $60, hardcover and $34.95 softcover.
The Yale University Art Gallery is at 1111 Chapel Street. For information, 203-432-0600 or www.artgallery.yale.edu.
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