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Objects to inspire: Gerald Murphy’s Razor (1924).

The Golden Couple

By Meisha Rosenberg

Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy

Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass., through Nov. 11

In Man With Hat (1920) by Fernand Léger, one of the most striking works at the Williams College Museum’s Making It New, a colorful, well-padded Cubist figure stands in front of a deconstructed American flag on the deck of a boat. He has a pipe for an arm, while the painting’s thick overlapping bars in black, red, and white graphically symbolize the shifting of nationalities and identities that occurred between the two World Wars.

Hanging next to this painting is an astounding photograph taken three years later of Gerald Murphy, Lost Generation artist and patron of the arts. It is jaw-dropping because in it, Murphy looks so much like the abstracted figure in Man With Hat, down to details like a cane (in the painting, a rectilinear form to the figure’s right), the sideward gaze, and a striped satchel, that one could swear he was used as a model. Only, the photo was taken after the painting was completed: It’s a case of life imitating art. Gerald Murphy so emulated ideals of modern art that he became a walking emblem. This fructive nexus be tween life and art is the subject of Making It New, curated by Deborah Rothschild, an exhaustive three-room collection of memorabilia and art by the Murphys and their circle.

While they were born in the 1880s to privileged families who had made their fortunes in manufacturing (Sara’s father headed a fine printing ink company in Cincinnati, while Gerald’s father took the helm of the Mark Cross luxury goods company), the couple wasn’t content to rest on their families’ laurels. Moving to Paris in 1921, they instead became two of the most important champions of modern art, music, and simple-but- sophisticated style during the 1920s and ’30s.

Making It New juxtaposes fascinating “Murphyana,” such as photos, newspaper clippings, and letters from the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, alongside Gerald Murphy’s paintings and works by artist friends Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, and Natalia Goncharova. The exhibit, while a worthy homage, can sometimes feel like an exciting party where one is surrounded by name-droppers who don’t bother to make introductions. Adding to this effect is the exhibition text, which is disappointingly skimpy on the themes of modern art and the darker aspects of the lives of the Murphys and their contemporaries. To fill in the blanks, one can read the excellent scholarly anthology accompanying the exhibition.

The Murphys so much fulfilled the zeitgeist that they inspired a whole generation of writers and artists: Man Ray photographed them; they appear as the Divers in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night; Hemingway’s writing was influenced by them; Picasso drew them. The Murphys weren’t just models but creative forces in their own right. They helped paint the scenery for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Gerald created the first American “ballet jazz opera,” called Within the Quota (1923), about immigration (music by Cole Porter), while Sara created some of the costumes (a video of a revival is on view). And of course, they threw fabulous parties.

Gerald Murphy’s paintings are a highlight, especially seen alongside some of the objects that inspired them: a Mark Cross watch used for his spectacular 6-foot Watch (1925); a razor and matches he used for Razor (1924). His painting increasingly has been lauded for its analytical, cubist-inspired depiction of machines and ordinary objects, and for an art-deco boldness that puts him in the same class as Cassandre and Charles Sheeler. His Watch, at 6 feet, is a graphically balanced exemplar of modern art’s fascination with machinery and time. He made only 14 paintings, and, sadly, seven have been lost, but the others are here (although one, Bibliotheque (1927), already has moved to its next location).

We learn of the sudden loss of the Murphys’ two beloved sons, Patrick and Baoth, within two years of each other, after the stock market crash (Patrick had tuberculosis, while Baoth developed meningitis). Gerald Murphy stopped painting after these devastating events, returning to Mark Cross and saving it from bankruptcy. Businessman, golden boy, jazz lover, artist—who was Gerald Murphy? The portrait that emerges is of a highly controlled, gifted man who was nonetheless extremely devoted to his wife, three children, and friends. Yet all that stylized control held less acceptable passions at bay: “Whether Gerald Murphy led an active homosexual sex life or simply fantasized about doing so, we know that his ‘defect’ [the euphemism of the time] caused him enormous pain,” writes Kenneth E. Silver in The Murphy Closet and the Murphy Bed. It’s unfortunate that the exhibit didn’t confront this.

Least clear in all this is Sara: That she was talented, immensely attractive to men, and gifted at bringing people together is evident, but her inner life is strangely missing. More muse than artist, with her hallmark pearls, she was described by her daughter Honoria as having “exquisite talent for making a residence the embodiment of herself”; yet Making It New doesn’t have much by way of interior design. The exhibit, an excellent introduction to the Murphys and their world, leaves some intriguing questions hanging, paving the way for one hopes will be future examinations of this fascinating couple.


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