From Fairy Tales to Reality

Jan 2 • Art, COVER STORYNo Comments on From Fairy Tales to Reality

Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: The Artwork of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
On display at Cameron Art Museum through March 10th

CIRCUS LIFE: Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (American, 1900-1948), Circus, ca. 1938, oil on canvas, 36 ¼  x 24 ¼ inches, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; Gift of the artist, 1943.5

CIRCUS LIFE: Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (American, 1900-1948), Circus, ca. 1938, oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 24 ¼ inches, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; Gift of the artist, 1943.5

In the times of rising feminism, it’s no secret that history is told from a male perspective. For centuries women were sequestered to the home as they fulfilled the societal confines of feminine acceptability.

In the art world, not much is different. Although female artists highlight history with their images, the great canvases of every generation were created by the genius of men. Since the intense rise of feminism in the mid-20th century, female artists have begun to be re-evaluated for their significance in our society. Artists such as Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt and the Renaissance’s Artemisia Gentileschi have come to hold places of high esteem. One, who is more widely known as the darling of the Jazz Age, a literary inspiration and “the first American flapper,” is Zelda Fitzgerald.

As the muse for her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless novels (“The Great Gatsby”, “The Beautiful and Damned,” “This Side of Paradise”), for much of her life she sought artistic recognition beyond his shadow. Throwing herself into a variety of creative outlets, such as dance, writing and painting, Zelda’s intense personality, perhaps greatly influenced by her mental disease, helped catapult her into Jazz Age infamy. The Cameron Art Museum’s newest exhibition, “Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: The Artwork of Zelda Fitzgerald,” provides viewers with access to the wide artistic oeuvre that she cultivated from 1927 to 1940.

Born in Alabama at the turn of the century, Zelda was a typical Southern Belle. The youngest of six, she defied docile female conventionality at an early age, preferring to smoke, drink, dance inappropriately and spend an ample amount of time with boys. A successful ballet dancer, Zelda was not in short supply of suitors. After meeting Fitzgerald, the couple married in 1920 and subsequently had a daughter, Scottie, in 1921.

After moving to Paris, the Fitzgeralds’ image as the constant partiers of the Jazz Age was instated. By the end of the ‘20s, however, their lifestyle, marital discontent and Zelda’s deteriorating mental health had begun to take its toll on the couple. As the ‘30s approached, Zelda began a string of permanent stays in psychiatric hospitals and sanatoriums throughout the U.S. where she would spend the rest of her life.

Yet, inside of her mind was more than distraught emotions. Her art showcases elements of whimsy and fantasy, depicting scenes from fairy tales, the Bible and her own personal reality. The disconnect between her artwork and its place in society showcases figures possessing sharp lines and harsh forms of Cubism and expressionism encountered during the 1920s while living in France. Both the human and characters hold their heads up high, chins raised to the sky as if ignoring the circumstances in which they live, searching for another reality above their own.

Likewise, an unavoidable masculinity exists, which Zelda once explained: “That’s how a ballet dancer feels after dancing.” Many of her images are of planes from a skewed perspective, another nod to her exposure to modernist forms and design. She puts forth colorful vividness that evokes a playfulness, a feature of her Roaring Twenties’ life. Still, the contorted figures hark back to her own psychological pain.

Another set of images in the exhibition are very much rooted in Zelda’s personal experience. After Scott’s death in 1940, she completed a set of paintings that immortalize and romanticize their life together in Paris. Depictions of prominent landmarks, the colors appear more muted, featuring darker, grey tones and no figures, only scenes of their life together. The exhibition also includes paintings of religious scenes, landscapes, sketches and sets of paper dolls made for her daughter and first grandchild.

Although her instability created troubles in her personal life, her perception and art are fueled by her unique experience of reality. Her art work privies us to another understanding of this American icon, who was once viewed only as the troubled wife and muse of a literary giant.

“Sometimes Madness is Wisdom” is one that Zelda herself named as part of an exhibition at Cary Ross Gallery in New York in 1934. A collection of 32 framed works she created from 1927 to 1940 are now viewable locally and on loan from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and the granddaughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ms. Eleanor Lanahan. Reproductions of historical photographs from the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers at Princeton Library are also on display.

Held in conjunction with the Big Read in Greater Wilmington, which is featuring “The Great Gatsby,” designed to revitalize the role of literature in American culture and encourage reading, “Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: The Artwork of Zelda Fitzgerald” will be on display until March 10th, 2013 at the museum. It provides another perspective of a woman who stands as an icon for one of history’s most luxurious and extravagant decades.

On Friday, February 1st, keynote speaker Eleanor Lanahan, Zelda’s granddaughter, will present a lecture about the collection. Admission to Cameron Art Museum is $8 for the general public, $5 for seniors, students and military and $3 for children ages 2-12.


* Correction: The date of Lanahan’s lecture has been changed to Feb. 3rd, 3 p.m.

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