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

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Dallas Museum of Art Presents Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy
Gerald Murphy, Watch, 1925, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of the artists, 1963.75.FA, © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnely/Licensed by VAGA, New York , NY.

DALLAS, TX.- The Dallas Museum of Art presents this summer the nationally acclaimed exhibition Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy. It is an intimate look at the couple who inspired and truly lived the modernist movement. Best remembered as the captivating American “expats” who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Sara and Gerald Murphy are for the first time being considered in a major museum exhibition as forces in their own right.

Featuring eight paintings by Gerald Murphy himself, which Newsweek describes as “striking,” the collection of keepsakes, letters and memorabilia harkens back to a time of innovation, style and beauty. The New York Times called Gerald Murphy the “progenitor of Pop Art,” and The New Yorker said his paintings are “a gold standard that backs, with creative integrity, the paper money of the couple’s legend.”

The Dallas presentation of Making It New—the final venue on a three-city national tour that included the Williams College Museum of Art and the Yale University Art
Gallery—will also celebrate the near 50th anniversary of the first and only exhibition of Gerald Murphy’s paintings during his lifetime. It was held at the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts (which merged with the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts to form the Dallas Museum of Art).

Making It New explores how the Murphys’ legendary style—modern in its apparent simplicity and freedom from stifling social regimentation—was an inspiration to the artists and writers of the Lost Generation. The exhibition sees the Murphys’ friends F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Sergei Diaghilev and Jean Cocteau as among those who encoded the ethos of the Murphys’ lives into progressive 20th-century art, literature, music and taste.

Unlike previous exhibitions, Making It New places Gerald’s boldly colored and meticulously rendered oil paintings alongside works by major artists of the day and a broad spectrum of never-before-exhibited objects and archival materials reflecting the period.

Gerald Murphy’s jazz-rhythmed painting entitled Razor (1924) and the 6-by-6-foot Watch (1925) will be shown in the exhibition. Both are part of the Museum’s permanent collection and are two of eight remaining paintings in Murphy’s 14-work oeuvre.

Major paintings by Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris and Georges Braque, including a number of works inspired by the Murphys, are also featured, as is a series of watercolors dedicated to Gerald and Sara by Léger; drawings by Jean Cocteau, Francis Picabia and others; and photographs of the Murphy family and its circle by Man Ray.

Snapshots of Sara Murphy and friends, posing like the three graces, will be exhibited alongside Picasso’s sinuous line drawing of the scene. And several Picasso portraits of women, debated as secret images of Sara Murphy, will be juxtaposed with photographs that suggest she might have been one of several sources that fed into his conception of ideal womanhood at the time.

Making It New was conceived and organized by Deborah Rothschild, recently retired Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Williams College Museum of Art. The presenting curator in Dallas is William Keyse Rudolph, The Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the Museum.

This exhibition has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: great ideas brought to life; the Terra Foundation for American Art; the Getty Foundation; and the Dedalus Foundation, Inc. The presentation in Dallas is made possible by Museum Tower. Air transportation provided by American Airlines.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Murphys - Sara (1883–1975) and Gerald (1888–1964) Murphy moved to France in 1921 with their three young children to carve out a life free from the strictures imposed by their wealthy New York families. They improvised their own brand of unconventional modernism that fostered creativity and intellectual freedom, epitomizing the modern American to both their countrymen and those they encountered abroad. Calvin Tomkins in his 1971 book about the Murphys, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, wrote: “Those closest to the Murphys found it almost impossible to describe the special quality of their life, or the charm it had for their friends. . . . They were utterly captivating.”

The Murphys astonished many with an ultra-modern pared-down style. In their Paris apartment, wood floors were painted black, walls stark white, and the only “art” on view was an actual steel ball bearing—the largest made—mounted to rotate on a black pedestal set atop an ebony piano.

By settling down in Villa America, their home in the Cap d’Antibes, a beachhead in the south of France, the Murphys invented the idea of year-round living in the Riviera: before their arrival, there was no summer season, no summer days at the beach. Gerald’s resort wear inspired Coco Chanel, and Sara’s habit of sunbathing with pearls draped down her bare back inspired imitators on both sides of the Atlantic.

Small and unpretentious, Villa America featured American innovations unheard of in Europe at the time, like screen doors and stainless steel bathroom fixtures. Le Corbusier praised the Murphys’ imaginative renovation of the house, particularly the new flat roof that served as a sun deck. The interior was decorated with black floors, zebra rugs, lots of mirrors, and big glass bowls filled with flowers. In 1930 Léger created a large double-sided screen for the villa that marked a change for him from geometric/mechanical to biomorphic/celestial imagery. Entitled Large Comet Tails on Black Background, the screen is featured in the exhibition.

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