Exhibit takes viewers to ’20s

Gerald Murphy ’12, a member of the Elizabethan Club, Skull and Bones and the Pundits, held the title “greatest social light, thorough gent and best dressed” in the yearbook the year of his graduation. Sara Wiborg, a glamorous debutante and wealthy socialite, traded formal education for travel and spent her youth absorbing the world’s cultures.

The two met one summer on a beach in East Hampton and — although their union remains largely unknown — their marriage inspired some of the most cherished modernist pieces of the 20th century. Together they created and lived the golden-age myth of the roaring ’20s.

“Making it New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy,” an exhibit opening this week at the Yale University Art Gallery, captures the essence of the couple who became the nucleus of the American expatriate community in France and the artists they associated with, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos.

On an unexpected journey to France in 1921, the Murphys found their calling. Discovering Paris and the French Riviera, they began, as YUAG show curator Amy Torbert put it, “crafting a way of life that lets loose the imagination” — immersing themselves in radical theater, art, dance, painting and literature.

Gerald saw his first modernist works in Paris: cubist paintings by Juan Gris, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.

“If that’s painting that’s what I want to do,” Gerald is reputed to have said.

Though never more than a novice, Gerald created over a dozen works, only seven of which survived and are included in the exhibit. But the show also couples his paintings with those that inspired him — and those he inspired.

The couple eventually purchased a house in Antibes, known to its frequenters as “Villa America,” where they hosted celebrated soirees. Their three children graced the scene as well; the family had a knack for bringing people together. “Mad Beach Parties,” as they dubbed these parties, and bathing-suit competitions became the backdrop for the explosion of creative energy that surrounded the couple.

The exhibit narrates this so-called explosion, allowing viewers to wander throughout an open viewing area, choosing between cases of memorabilia, walls of Gerald’s works, displays of his sketch books and the more easily recognizable modernist pieces, like those of Fernand Leger.

There is freedom for the spectator — one that harkens back to the free-spirit atmosphere of the Riviera. One striking case illustrates the visual link between Picasso and Gerald: A picture of Gerald dancing in the sand sits next to a Picasso sketch of a man in identical contours.

Perhaps the most valued and vivid depiction of the Murphys is in Fitzgerald’s 1934 “Tender is the Night”: They are the models for Dick and Nicole Diver at the beginning of the novel, even though critics bemoan the characters’ metamorphosis into F. Scott and Zelda halfway through the novel. But the blurred lines between fiction and reality are especially interesting given the later similarities between the couples. Nonetheless, “Tender is the Night” bore the dedication: “To Gerald and Sara — Many Fetes.”

In an eerie parallel to the Fitzgeralds, tragedy hit the Murphys in 1929, when their youngest son Patrick was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died just over one year after the unexpected death of their middle child in 1935.

At that point, Gerald supposedly declared that “life was definitely stopped before it was finished.”

Moving back to the United States and abandoning the glory of their expatriate life, the Murphys fell into obscurity shortly after.

It was not until the 1960s, when Calvin Tomkins, a writer for “The New Yorker,” discovered one of Gerald’s paintings that the Murphy legend entered the public sphere. Deborah Rothschild, who curated the show in its original location at the Williams College Museum of Art from July to December of 2007, uncovered the mysterious force behind the decade’s glamour while reading Tomkins’ biography of the couple, “Living Well is the Best Revenge.”

Rothschild developed an affinity for the Murphys and their “role as the cross pollinators, bringing ideas to Europe and America.” Unintentionally, she explained, they sparked modernism as we know it today.

Rothschild remembers a particular comment by Fitzgerald: “They embodied the leisure class at its most brilliant and spectacular.”

Rothschild, too, was captivated by Murphy’s artistic contribution to modernist mores. Gerald’s seven surviving works — “Razor,” “Cocktail,” “Villa America,” “Watch,” “Still Life with Flowers,” “Bibliotheque,” “Doves” and “Wasp and Pear” — focus on the hard machinery and material culture depicted in the cubist tradition.

Each canvas, through its distinct forms, evokes an emptiness or ominous sense of sorrow, from the ambiguous halved figures in “Bibliotheque” to the macabre wasp ready to destroy a luscious, ripe pear.

Even though “Making it New” pays homage to Gerald’s personal paintings — his vibrant depictions of blown-up life-size objects — he was far from a prolific painter. Mark Aronson, chief paintings conservator at the Yale Center for British Art, who restored one of Gerald’s works, often wonders whether Gerald enjoyed painting — he never picked up another brush after his migration back to the States.

“I’m curious to know whether he enjoyed it,” Aronson said. “It’s either luxury or it’s not therapeutic. Sometimes painting is spiritual. You would think he could paint during family tragedy.”

But whether or not he enjoyed it, his career was truncated. Gerald’s seven surviving paintings are, for this reason, by no means the focus of the show. Rather than Gerald’s paintings, it is the exhibit as a whole that exudes the culture in which the Murphys immersed themselves.

“He created the environment of the creativity more than he was the creator himself,” Aronson explained.

Now merely emblems of the Lost Generation, Sara and Gerald are gaining recognition thanks to a fresh look at a nearly century-old saga. While the sadness of their lives perhaps illuminates the preceding decade of glory (like the Fitzgerald legacy), their spirits live on through the aesthetic landscape the 1920s.

Archibald MacLeish ’15, a modernist poet and one of Gerald’s classmates at Yale, once said “People try to be their best selves around the Murphys.”

Together, they bred the wonder of 1920s culture.

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