Exhibit of Zelda Fitzgerald's art
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Out of the Shadow
She wrote, danced, painted, but Zelda Fitzgerald's many talents were
her husband's fame. A new book and exhibit showcase her creative gifts.
By Aileen Jacobson
May 20, 2003
Zelda wrote. Zelda danced. Zelda mothered. Zelda frolicked in a public
Zelda went mad. And Zelda painted.
The last of those activities is probably the least known about the wife of
Scott Fitzgerald. During long but sporadic creative periods, Zelda
painted grotesque ballerinas with large feet, her family as a set of paper
dolls in underwear, whimsical fairy tale scenes, lush abstract flowers and
jaunty Manhattan and Paris cityscapes.
She painted particularly well after Scott died in 1940. And she painted most
prolifically in mental hospitals, including the one where she burned to
inside a locked room in 1948, at age 47.
The remarkable career of the multitalented Zelda Fitzgerald, with a special
focus on her art, is the subject of a new biography and, serendipitously,
major show at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. Opening Saturday, the
exhibit features 54 of Zelda's watercolors and drawings and also, through
museum's own period costumes, photographs and room settings, evokes the
Island Gold Coast of the 1920s, where the Fitzgeralds invented the Great
They are part of a re-examination of Zelda's life that has been building for
several years now, fueled in 2000 by the 100th anniversary of her birth,
prompted a conference, publication of a few other books and the widely
exhibit of those 54 pieces of art. Launched in Vermont in 1995 by one of
granddaughters, Eleanor Lanahan, the art show traveled even as far as
For a time, when they were young, Zelda and Scott were America's most famous
couple. Dorothy Parker once said that, together, they looked "as though
had just stepped out of the sun."
But, many observers have argued, Scott stood in the sun and Zelda often was
his shadow, her gifts subsumed or stifled by his greater fame and frequent
appropriation of her words and deeds for his own work. Others argue that
writing, ballet dancing and painting were eclipsed not because she was the
victim of an overbearing husband and a society that disapproved of
women, but because she was destructive, schizophrenic and a dilettante,
limiting her husband's achievements as well as her own.
The complicated debate about Zelda that has long raged in literary circles
addressed in Sally Cline's "Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise"
Publishing, $27.95) and in the exhibit "Flappers in Fashion: Zelda
and the Jazz Age on Long Island." Both, with revelations that sometimes
startle, demonstrate that Zelda's art was perhaps her most satisfying
"We start from the point that she was a remarkably talented person ... and
a fascinating person to study over the course of her life," says Joshua
curator of the museum's history section, as he sits in a back room among
exhibit's colorfully costumed mannequins. Also surrounding him are handsome
1920s furniture, crated art and borrowed artifacts, including Zelda's
feather fan and Scott's leather briefcase and a silver flask that was a
"In the early '20s, she had her own voice. But you could make the case that
the '20s wore on ... she was basically in the shadows for much of the rest
Scott's life," he adds. "This Side of Paradise" and then "The Great Gatsby"
made Scott more famous.
One of Zelda's early pieces that gained attention, Ruff says, was a 1922
for Metropolitan Magazine titled "Eulogy on the Flapper."
In the satirical piece (the flapper movement was only just beginning), Zelda
maintained that the original Flapper, who did as she pleased and "refused
bored chiefly because she wasn't boring" (much like herself), is dead and
her "outer accoutrements" have been bequeathed to schoolgirls and shopgirls
whom "Flapperdom has become a game."
The exhibit, says Ruff, celebrates the richly creative and happy parts of
Zelda's life, and includes an evocation, with Art Deco furniture and
mannequins, of the living room of the Great Neck home where she and Scott
parties and lived from 1922 to 1924. There also will be music, videos, a
dressing-for-a-party scene and a children's area, featuring the museum's
toys and the fairy tale-inspired paintings Zelda made for her daughter,
Scottie, and her grandchildren. Her hardships and suffering are
mainly in a section toward the end.
As for whether Zelda was a heroine or a harridan, Ruff's view is down the
middle: "They were equal-opportunity impeders.... A later psychiatrist
look at the term co-dependency as being an apt way to describe them." Zelda
have been mentally ill, but Scott was an alcoholic. Indeed, Scott wrote to
Zelda in 1930, "We ruined ourselves - I have never honestly thought that we
ruined each other."
"Part of their problem was that they were caught between legends and myths,"
says author Sally Cline, speaking by telephone from her office at Anglia
Polytechnic University in Cambridge, England. "I think they restructured
behavior to live up to the legends, to have exploits and then write about
- behaving badly in public places, jumping into fountains."
Meanwhile, Cline says, Zelda became overshadowed: "Suddenly, she was Mrs.
Fitzgerald.... And part of the legend was that she was the mad wife.. ..It
didn't help her to be seen as a serious artist."
Another difficulty was that Zelda was "gifted in three directions. We tend
give more credence to those who devote full time" to one genre. Zelda took
ballet in her late 20s, in Paris; she achieved proficiency but became so
obsessed, it may have led to her first breakdown. She wrote one complete
"Save Me the Waltz," which she edited under pressure from Scott. Cline
from a transcript of an excruciating, psychiatrist-mediated negotiation
had later over which parts of their life she could use. "Everything we have
done is mine," Scott argued.
Her interest in Zelda, Cline says, was inspired by Nancy Milford's
1970 biography. Among Cline's revelations is an observation by Zelda's last
psychiatrist that she may have been depressed, not schizophrenic, and that
treatments - including electroshock and horse blood injections - may have
worsened her illness.
The fascination with Zelda's art may be partly fueled by a recent focus on
female artists overshadowed by their male companions, such as Frida Kahlo,
of Diego Rivera, says David Furchgott, executive director of International
and Artists, the nonprofit group directing the art tour. "A number of
that either are or were women's colleges have expressed interest in her
personal story of suppressed talent, the one whose creative instincts
allowed to fully blossom as they should have been."
Cline believes Zelda was a powerful artist, but, since many of her paintings
were destroyed after her death and many were not dated, they don't
complete body of work." Much of it, Cline says, is "unsettling,
and unpredictable. There's no ground under anyone's feet." An image of a
nursing mother with her head half-severed, she observes, is "not
Other experts agree with Cline's positive but tempered assessment of Zelda's
"I thought it was really original and whimsical, really unique," says Janie
Cohen, director of the Robert Hull Fleming Museum of the University of
in Burlington, where the art now on Long Island was first mounted eight
ago. Among the pieces Cohen recalls most vividly are cityscapes,
the paper dolls and paintings with fairy tale and biblical themes. "She was
responding to her own visions. It's very personal art," says Cohen, who
selected excerpts from Zelda's writings to match each painting.
"I do remember the ballet scenes," she adds. "She struggled so much with
and her paintings expressed so vividly what she was feeling, with the
with huge feet. They look like they couldn't be airborne."
Zelda might have flourished more if she had been part of an artists'
says Simone Weil Davis, associate professor of English at Long Island
University, who will speak on "Revisiting Zelda, the Writer and Artist" at
Long Island Museum on June 8, in one of nine programs, and five more for
children, scheduled during the exhibit's run, through Oct. 26 (see
www.longislandmuseum.org or call 631-751-0066).
"She had a lot in common with women in Surrealism," in style and personal
situation, says Davis. Those women, such as Meret Oppenheim, creator of the
famous fur-lined teacup, were thought of more "as models and partners,"
they wrote and painted on their own. "They appreciated the borders of
that people on the edge could do creative work," Davis says.
Even without a support group, Zelda "knew and understood a great deal about
modern art," says Diane Chalmers Johnson, art history professor at the
of Charleston, in Charleston, S.C., where Zelda's art recently resided.
"She understood Cubism and Picasso's kind of breaking up shape and form."
"floating lines and exaggerated colors" are a nod to Matisse, and her
paintings, which she gave to friends as gifts, demonstrate a familiarity
Georgia O'Keefe, says Johnson. Her city scenes and children's art are
"wonderfully exuberant," while her paper dolls are "a real hoot. She had a
wicked sense of humor." Look for Freudian notes and a "sexual pun," she
in even the most seemingly innocent ones.
"It's now time to give her some equal credit," says Sally Kinsey, a history
fashion professor at Syracuse University and co-curator of the Long Island
exhibit. "Her paper dolls are just fabulous," demonstrating Zelda's
approach, says Kinsey. The vivid 1920s street scenes of Manhattan and
painted 20 years later from memory, are "pretty amazing," she says, and
abstract flowers show great skill. "If she had lived longer," she added,
might have become an important abstract expressionist."
The next stop for Zelda's 54 paintings, and the only other close to New
the Huntington House Museum in Windsor, Conn., December through January
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