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October 15 - Decmeber 18, 2006 at Pepperdine University,
Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art
, Malibu

by Marlena Donohue

Zelda Fitzgerald comes down to us not as a producer of culture but as “the consort of”. . .a role for women that is less likely today but no less sad in its consequences.

From her 20s until her death Zelda painted, not simply as a dilettante but as a serious student. This show features little seen, mostly small scale gouache on paper works, including her fairy tale illustrations, paper doll drawings, and images from a history (cardinals and kings) filtered through a hallucinatory kind of re-invention. These images are remarkable for the way in which they look like nothing else we have seen of late, and because they cause us to laugh and wince in their raw intensity.

Zelda was the belle of Montgomery from one of its oldest families, and early on showed amazing creative potential in perhaps too many areas: she danced, wrote, and was an incisive and deeply poetic observer of nature (her husband more than once borrowed a resonant line from letters the two exchanged during their long separation, brought about by his decent into alcoholism, his departure West to try his hand at screen writing, as well as by Zelda’s stay in numerous mental institutions).

Initially exuberant and secure, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the talk of the U.S. and Europe while Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby,” in which he reveals what the feminine meant to him in particular, and to his socio-strata in general: Women hover about orchestrating yet helpless in a perfumed air; seductresses and muses, each according to their class taunting the men they’d chosen or longing for those they had not.

In the early part of their marriage Zelda was happy and wrote lively articles for “Metropolitan” and the “New York Tribune.” It is no surprise in hindsight that the 27-year old Zelda gave up serious writing early on under the shadow of her author husband. She instead embarked on a grueling daily 8-hour regimen of ballet study that ended when she was institutionalized in 1930.

There are no definitive records to substantiate this directly but by 1932, when a very sick Zelda published “Save Me the Waltz,” a veiled autobiography that included the intense subject matter of mental illness, historians suggest she effaced its content so as not to compete with her famous husband’s similarly couched “Tender is the Night.”

“The Queen’s Croquet-Ground” (“Alice
in Wonderland” series), n.d., watercolor.
Photo courtesy Eleanor Lanahan.

“Brooklyn Bridge,” 1944, watercolor.
Courtesy of Samuel J. Lanahan.

“A Mad Tea Party," watercolor.

“Self Portrait".

And so she came in roundabout manner, like a person looking for a refuge, to focus on art. It was not fully a default mode of expression. From her earliest diaries Zelda drew with great invention. She took her first painting lesson in Capri in 1925. Whatever else she tried and faltered at her painting continued, as it was tied to and part of her therapeutic process.

This show presents some of the most absolutely inventive art to be seen in a very long time. It says everything: The lusty exuberance of the age of Gatsby, and a kind of melting, distorted descent into the chaos that followed it; the narcissistic childishness of that era, and its concomitant sophistication. The works are shockingly autobiographical, but in the most indirect, even charming way.

Zelda and F. Scott gave birth to a daughter, Scottie, who as her parents unraveled spent time with neither. Perhaps originally to amuse Scottie, perhaps later in life at the suggestion of therapists, Zelda produced throughout her life an out and out amazing body of paper dolls and drawings for paper dolls. These are funny, clever, and eccentric in a way that really defies description. There are knights and kings whose outfits run from high heeled preening to posed dandy ferocity. There are woodcutters and folk icons like the big bad wolff (yes with two “ff’s”), an amorphously gendered lupine character wearing wedding silks and hunting garb interchangeably. There are paper dolls of a tame and tidy trio: F. Scott, Zelda and Scottie, who can be dressed to taste--school attire, vacation wear--as if Zelda were trying in her inner life to imagine and tool the life she simply could not enact. These are hilarious and prescient; they anticipate the inter-media ideas of Post Modernism, and they break your heart to look at them.

Also funny, bizarre and stunning are her images of ballet dancers: lumbering, muscled, chunky footed, too dense to dance, too coiled to move, yet rendered with this chin-held-high haughty grace that is delicate and lyrical. With these Zelda was able to capture in watery pigment what Auguste Rodin did in stone--nude contours that never settle, they roil and churn with a weird life force.

Tucked into these images--of dancers and paper dolls, of Alice Through the Looking Glass (how apt for poor Zelda who, like her generation, could not grow up) and of fairy tales (Mary and her lamb sachet through the woods in a cross between an LSD trip and Asian anima before it was invented)--is a tragic awareness that lives, decadent and divine, are more surface than reality.