Unknown Modern Master: Gerald Murphy

A few months after moving to Paris in 1921, Gerald Murphy happened to walk by the gallery of the pioneer modern-art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who was holding a kind of clearance sale of cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Georges Braque. Murphy was the heir to the ritzy Mark Cross luggage company, and he and his wife, Sara, had come to France to escape the doldrums of life in the States under Prohibition and Warren Harding's "return to normalcy" after World War I. Young and rich, they'd planned to soak up culture and enjoy the good life. But that fortuitous gallery drop-in changed Gerald's life. "If that's painting," he told Sara, "that's the kind of painting I would like to do." He studied for six months with Natalia Goncharova, the Russian-revolutionary expat abstract painter and set designer, and then plunged in, exhibiting in the famous Salon des Indépendants of the early '20s. All told, he produced 14 pictures. Only seven survive. And for only the second time ever, every one of them—elegant, precise, lightly cubist and startlingly prescient of the pop art that would follow 40 years later—is on display, in "Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy," at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts through Nov. 11. (The show then travels to New Haven, Conn., and Dallas.)

But there's much more to the Murphys—and the exhibition—than Gerald's paintings. The Murphys were perhaps the world's first totally—even maniacally—modernist couple. In Paris, their apartment featured bare white walls in which the only art object was a big ball bearing rotating on a black pedestal atop a black piano. They played jazz records from Harlem. Down in Antibes, on the Mediterranean coast, Gerald and Sara established a second home, Villa America, where the flat roof doubled innovatively as a sun deck. They became friends with Picasso, who developed—like practically every man who crossed Sara's path—a wicked crush on her and made her the model for several of his prettier pictures. The Murphys entertained the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Serge Diaghilev and Dorothy Parker. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the couple's closest friend, though that didn't stop him from doing things like tossing Sara's crystal wineglasses from the balcony at one of the Murphys' all-night parties. But he made up for it. Fitzgerald later immortalized the Murphys; they're the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in his novel "Tender Is the Night."

But the Murphys' long and full lives (Gerald died in 1964, Sara in 1975) were also tinged with tragedy. Gerald gave up painting in 1929 when his younger son, Patrick, then 9, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Murphys began a series of odysseys, first to Switzerland, then to the States, to try to find a cure. For a while the boy recovered. Suddenly in 1935, Patrick's older brother, Baoth, away at prep school in New England, came down with measles that turned into spinal meningitis. He died within weeks. Two years later, Patrick's TB relapsed and he also died. Some of the most lyrical and heart-rending words you'll ever read are in Fitzgerald's handwritten note of condolence to Sara, on view in one of the show's vitrines. It concludes: "The golden bowl is broken indeed but it was golden; nothing can ever take those boys away from you now."

There's a myth that Gerald Murphy really quit painting not because of Patrick's TB but because he realized he'd never match the genius of his European idols. It's true that he doesn't. Amid the plethora of letters, photographs, rare books and manuscripts, a part of a costume-ball gown of Sara's and even some for-comparison works by Picasso and Fernand Léger, Gerald emerges as a bit of a Johnny-come-lately who doesn't really wrestle with pictorial space, and who takes too much refuge in graphic cleverness. But within his martini-sharp and tuxedo-correct version of modernism—which was still more avant-garde than anything being produced stateside—Murphy was a superb artist. Although the snappy "Razor" (1924) and evocative "Cocktail" (1927)—on which he spent four months getting the cigar box just right—make welcome appearances, the real stunner is "Watch" (1925). It's a six-and-a-half-foot square geometric fugue in grays and gold that's both a homage to the watchmaker's craft and a trove of coded symbolism. Some say, for instance, that the watch's disconnected mainspring stands for what Murphy confided to a few people was his "defect"—the closeted gayness on which, as far as we know, he was never able to act. Having to stop painting clearly demoralized him. Murphy assumed the presidency of Mark Cross for 20 years until 1956, and refused to talk about his abandoned art. Near the end of his life, however, he said, "I was never happy until I started painting, and I have never been thoroughly so since I was obliged to give it up." For a brief time in the 1920s, though, he was happy, Sara was happy and Paris was the center of the universe. Thanks to Gerald's small trove of paintings, we'll always have a bit of his Paris, too.