Photo © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
It is not unusual to think of wealthy people as collectors of art. And it’s well known that patrons often aim to influence artists and their creations. But to think that a rich, young American couple could have inspired great art in a variety of media on two continents, not by collecting or commissioning, but through the sheer force of their personalities and lifestyle, is almost beyond imagination.
That’s the remarkable story told in “Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy,” at the Williams College Museum of Art. The Murphys were Jazz Age royalty. Born into mercantile fortunes, they broke free of convention to become international lifestyle innovators on a grand scale. They were part of the expatriate scene of Americans who moved to France in the 1920s, where they counted as their closest friends Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and John Dos Passos. F. Scott Fitzgerald modeled Nicole and Dick Diver, the protagonists of Tender is the Night, on the Murphys, and then dedicated the novel to them. The couple wrote and designed the first American jazz ballet in 1923, and had the then-unknown Cole Porter compose music for it. Their fondness for jazz led them to import the latest recordings from the United States, which they shared with, among others, Igor Stravinsky.
A number of paintings by Picasso were directly influenced, if not outright inspired, by Sara’s physical beauty and personal magnetism; another clearly depicts Gerald as a panpiper’s companion. In 1923, the Murphys singlehandedly created the summer beach culture on the French Riviera, when they convinced the Hôtel du Cap d’Antibes to remain open past May so that they and the Picassos could live there for the summer.
The exhibit was curated by WCMA’s Deborah Rothschild, who organized the provocative “Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna, 1903-1913,” in 2002. Like the earlier show, “Making It New” is not so much an art exhibition as it is cultural history illustrated by an enormous collection of objects, many of which happen to be great works of art. Hundreds of artifacts, from scrapbooks to costumes, detail the Murphys’ background, courtship, married life, European period, etc., broken into 13 distinct sections. It becomes a bit of a job just to get through it all (I counted more than 100 framed pictures in one of the rooms), but this is academia, after all, where exhaustive research must be served. There are times, though, when the viewer would prefer the cultivated simplicity the Murphys were famous for.
Among the display are a number of great artworks by Picasso, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Le Corbusier. Ironically, though, when it comes to paintings, the undisputed star of the show is Gerald Murphy himself. Murphy made only 14 paintings over the short span of his career, which lasted from 1921 to 1929, when he gave up art to tend to the family business. Despite so small an output, Léger referred to him as “the only American painter in Paris.” It could be argued, just on the strength of the seven paintings on display here, that he invented new and lasting forms in modern art.
The centerpiece of Murphy’s oeuvre is the six-and-a-half-foot-square oil Watch from 1925. The mechanical works of a large pocket watch are depicted as theme and variation in yellow, brown, blue, and several monochrome shades from black to white. Graphically slick and technically perfect, the painting effortlessly combines Cubism and Pop Art as though there weren’t a 50-year gap separating them.
Equally stunning is an image titled Razor from 1924, which marries advertising design to Cubist principles as adeptly as Lichtenstein, Johns, or Rauschenberg did two generations later. A nearby display case contains the safety razor, matchbox, and fountain pen that Murphy used as the subjects, a touch that typifies the detailed and thoughtful presentation throughout the show.
Murphy is not an undiscovered revelation—in 1974, his work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, which has lent the WCMA show its impressive Wasp and Pear, from 1929. Another late still life, Cocktail, from the Whitney Museum of American Art, provides the clearest connection between Murphy’s art and his life. Its subject is more than the corkscrew, halved lemon, martini glass, and meticulously rendered cigar box Murphy presents with characteristic cool, graphic virtuosity. The work is a picture of the sophisticated, happy existence Gerald and Sara enjoyed in their heyday.
In the midst of this charmed life, the Murphys were also raising three children, a girl and two boys, born in a four-year burst early in their marriage. Their Antibes home, dubbed Villa America, was predicated on a philosophy of simplicity and devotion to the children. It housed a menagerie of pets, and was the site of endless energy spent (particularly by Gerald) creating activities and entertainment for and by the kids. The Murphys were not only the foremost “moderns”; they were also, in their way, the first hippies, and their post-Victorian focus on their children foreshadows the soccer moms and dads of today.
One feels a pang of sadness to learn how the economic crash of 1929 and tragedies within their own family brought the Murphys’ idyll to an end. Among the most extraordinary exhibit labels one is ever likely to see is in the last gallery: The sign, hung above a glass case, states, starkly, If you read nothing else, READ THIS. Inside is a condolence letter from Fitzgerald, written after the death of the Murphys’ younger son, who had struggled for many years with tuberculosis. His passing followed the much more sudden death of their older son from meningitis. Fitzgerald writes, “The golden bowl is broken indeed but it was golden: Nothing can ever take those boys away from you now.”
This last room of the show, where the wall graphics edge toward funereal black, transforms the exhibit’s celebration of the Murphys into elegy. What they lived and what they represented seem very far away from who we are today, as distant as the ancient Greeks. Looking back in 1936 on that brief, sunny time, Gerald Murphy told Fitzgerald, “Only the invented part of our lives had any meaning.” As evidenced in this exhibition, there is still meaning to be derived from all they invented.
“Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy” continues through November 11 at the Williams College Museum of Art. Main Street, Williamstown, Massachusetts. (413) 597-2429; www.wcma.org.
- Gerald and Sara Murphy in Antibes, 1926.
- Gerald Murphy's _Watch_, 1925