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Visual Art: Gerald and Sara Murphy at the DMA


by Jerome Weeks 30 May 2008

You know this story. It’s just the names you may not know. A couple leaves stifling, Prohibition-era America for Paris, where they become friends with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Sergei Diaghilev. The French are delighted by the young Americans and the fresh new trends they bring — like the cocktails they serve or […]

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You know this story. It’s just the names you may not know.

A couple leaves stifling, Prohibition-era America for Paris, where they become friends with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Sergei Diaghilev. The French are delighted by the young Americans and the fresh new trends they bring — like the cocktails they serve or the blues numbers they sing. The husband tries his hand at art, but friends remember the couple fondly for the way they lived. They combined fashion, avant-garde art and family life in a casual yet stylish manner.

But then, things go wrong. Seriously wrong: Their two sons die young. The husband must work to save the family firm – and quits his art for good.

Gerald and Sara Murphy on the Riviera (above)

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You know this story because F. Scott Fitzgerald told it in his novel, Tender Is the Night. Philip Barry captured some of the couple’s charm in The Philadelphia Story. Archibald MacLeish told part of the story — the sad, last part — in his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, JB.

It’s the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the subjects of Making It New, the exhibition opening Sunday at the Dallas Museum of Art. The legend of the Lost Generation is thoroughly familiar, its glamour and tragedy. What’s not so well known are Gerald’s paintings. Only seven survive of the 14 he created. But there’s something more – something intangible yet lingering: the way the Murphys lived.

It wasn’t simply a matter of wealth, although Gerald’s father was president of Mark Cross, the luxury goods company, and Sara’s family was the kind that got introduced to British royalty. The Murphys escaped much of that to live simply, serving Ritz crackers or Rice Krispies. On one occasion, they threw a famous party for Igor Stravinsky’s experimental ballet, Les Noces on a barge in Paris. When Sara couldn’t buy any fresh flowers, she decorated the barge with cheap toys from street vendors – and enchanted her partygoers.

Set from Within the Quota, ballet created by the Murphys with Cole Porter, 1923

Amanda Vail, author of Everybody Was So Young, a biography of the Murphys: “They wanted to make a life where you could make art, make something that mattered, and you could be friends with people who did that, and you could make that your life. In New York, when the Murphys lived here in the late teens, you couldn’t do that. Not on their level of society. It was not really proper to consort with artists.”

Once, Sara’s Aunt Hoytie chastised her and Gerald for wasting their time painting with some bohemian character. The man was Pablo Picasso.

Their way of life wasn’t simply a matter of wealth because the Murphys didn’t commission artworks. They inspired them. Curator Deborah Rothschild, editor of the catalog Making It New: “Being around them was extraordinary and enchanting. So many people whom we remember in 20th century arts and letters responded to being in the presence of a kind of unknown art form at that time. The way they lived really prefigured conceptual artists.”

Watch, oil on canvas, 1925

Inspired by cubism, Gerald developed a very precise style of abstract painting. His works anticipate Pop Art but in his own private, quiet way. Only recently have scholars considered that his paintings are full of coded, personal references, including ones even to his bisexuality. Or to his relationship with his father. The pocket watch, for instance, was a product of Gerald’s father’s company, Mark Cross. Remarkably for someone just learning his art, Gerald did not imitate the powerful examples of his friends Ferdinand Leger and Picasso.

Dallas art critic Janet Kutner: “His work really doesn’t look like anybody else’s work. And they’re not huge paintings by comparison to what some people do today. But they sure hold their own.”

Gerald’s talent, their friend the poet Archibald MacLeish once said, was in taking “something you hadn’t even noticed and make you see how good it was. He knew all about early American folk art, for instance, long before the museums started collecting it, and he could tell you the towns along the New England coast where you could go and see marvelous old weather vanes or painted signs. He always had this capacity for enriching your life with things he had found — like those old Negro spirituals or his collection of rare recordings of the early Western songs.”

The Murphys’ life was spent turning the mundane, even the miserable, into the extraordinary. After their nine-year-old son Patrick was struck with tuberculosis (he would eventually die of it), the family moved to Switzerland for his treatment. For their next home, the Murphys decided to build a sailboat as a kind of floating school for their children. But Patrick was too ill to see it. So on the lawn outside his hospital window, Gerald outlined the entire 90-foot schooner for his son.

Deborah Rothschild finds related fusions of art and life in the work of Rick Lowe, whose Project Row Houses have brought art and rehabbed housing to Houston’s Third Ward. Or Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose installations often involve greeting and feeding people.

Rothschild: “It’s promoting what he calls an ethic of hospitality. And he believes how one receives the presence of others is art. That’s very Murphy-like.”

Today, even ads for Target tout the well-designed life. Celebrities like Cher and Cindy Crawford have their own lines of home furnishings. What was avant-garde is an industry.

But eighty years ago, there was no such thing as “lifestyle.” There was only life and art and the special talent the Murphys had for both.

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