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Revisiting a fabled couple's passions and paintings

WILLIAMSTOWN - One of the most intriguing paintings in New York's Museum of Modern Art is "Wasp and Pear," by Gerald Murphy. In a smooth mix of Cubism and Art Deco style, it depicts a giant wasp crouching in a predatory manner over a bulbous green pear.

When I first came upon the painting back in the 1970s, I took it for the work of a contemporary artist straddling the line between Surrealism and Pop Art. So I was much surprised to learn it was painted in 1929. Only years later would I begin to learn the extraordinary, tragic story of its creator. Now that tale is told in all its fascinating twists and turns by an absorbing, heartbreaking exhibition called "Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy" at the Williams College Museum of Art.

Organized by the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, Deborah Rothschild, the exhibition is a kind of sprawling, walk-in scrapbook, including innumerable documentary photographs; paintings by artists who influenced Murphy such as Juan Gris, Le Corbusier, and Picasso; original letters from friends such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and all seven of the existing oil paintings that Murphy made during his short but brilliant career as an artist.

For a dozen or so years in the 1920s and early '30s, the American expatri ates Sara (1883-1975) and Gerald (1888-1964) Murphy were darlings of the French avant-garde. Blessed with wealth, beauty, style, boundless energy, and genius-level social IQs, they befriended the most important and progressive artists and writers in Paris, and they gave parties that would be remembered for years after.

During summers on the French Riviera, the Murphys pioneered a mode of American-style seaside living theretofore unknown to local residents. They moved into a vacant hotel, cleared seaweed from the beach, and created an idyllic retreat. Soon they bought a house, which they remodeled in a spare Modernist style and called "Villa America."

So admirable were the Murphys' gifts for gracious living, friendship, and imaginative play that several of their artist friends were inspired to base figures in their novels and paintings on them. Most famously, Sara and Gerald were the models for Nicole and Dick Diver, the charismatic, doomed couple at the center of Fitzgerald's novel "Tender is the Night." They also figured more or less directly in books by John Dos Passos and Hemingway.

Picasso, a frequent guest at Villa America, drew sunbathing women wearing pearls, as Sara customarily did at the beach. Rothschild believes that Sara was the subject of Picasso's lovely, neoclassical-style portrait from 1923, "Woman in White," though the painting is not an exact likeness. She also argues that the standing figure wearing only briefs resembling swimming trunks in "The Pipes of Pan," another of Picasso's best known paintings from the '20s, is based on Gerald. Displayed in the show among many photographs of the Murphys and their friends frolicking at Villa America, these otherwise timeless paintings acquire a quickening specificity.

As if being so debonair, so glamorously married, and so beloved by such luminous friends were not enough - not to mention being a devoted father of three beautiful children - Gerald also had to be an amazingly gifted artist. Soon after he and Sara arrived in Paris in 1921, Gerald was thunderstruck by some Cubist paintings he happened upon in a contemporary art gallery. If this was painting, he thought, I'm going to try it myself. He and Sara took lessons from Constructivist painter Natalia Goncharova, and they helped paint sets for Diaghilev ballets. Within three years, Gerald was producing some of the most sophisticated and attention-getting paintings in all of Paris.

Gerald's seven surviving paintings are the heart and soul of the exhibition. "Razor" (1924), a still-life picture of a safety razor and a fountain pen crossed before a box of safety matches, is like a Jazz Age coat of arms, as coolly controlled and explosively lively as a Fred Astaire dance number. "Watch" (1925) is a dazzlingly complicated, 6-by-6-foot enlargement of the inner works of a pocket watch rendered in an exacting, Precisionist style in 14 shades of gray plus two shades of mustard yellow.

It wasn't for lack of appreciation that Murphy quit painting so soon after creating these works. His paintings were included in numerous Paris exhibitions, and they were praised by critics and other artists. It was, rather, a series of unrelated reversals of fortune that precipitated his retirement from painting and, eventually, his return to America with Sara and their near-complete withdrawal from the world of modern art. There was the stock market crash, which reduced the couple's income and forced them to close up Villa America. And at about the same time their son Patrick contracted tuberculosis, which would eventuate in his death in 1937. Meanwhile, another son, Baoth, came down with measles and then meningitis and died in 1935. Finally, Gerald was called back to America to take over his father's failing company, Mark Cross, purveyors of fine leather goods, stationery, and other accessories.

These events would be enough to explain Gerald's early retirement from painting. But there was something else, too, something in Gerald's psyche that warrants consideration. It seems that he was tormented for most of his life by what he called in private letters his "defect," a term then commonly used as a euphemism for homosexuality. To what extent he may have acted on his attraction to men is not known, but it is certain that he was ashamed of it, that he struggled to repress it in himself, and that he wanted to keep it secret.

What might this have to do with Murphy's painting, which, on the surface at least, appears to betray little about the artist's inner life? Maybe more than has previously been thought. In her catalog essay, Rothschild persuasively argues that Murphy's paintings are actually deeply autobiographical. She says paintings like "Cocktail" (1927), in which images of cigars and implements for mixing liquor are neatly organized into a syncopated Cubist grid, and "Bibliothèque (Library)" (1926-27), which comprises images of thick books, a world globe, and a neoclassical bust, can both be read as oblique essays on the artist's remote and disapproving father and Gerald's struggle to gain control over his own identity.

Kenneth E. Silver, in a catalog essay called "The Murphy Closet and the Murphy Bed," goes further in asserting that Murphy's pictures are effectively portraits of a closeted gay man.

In this light, "Wasp and Pear" might be revealing. The pear's generous bottom is easily read as a human behind, a luscious, ambiguously gendered object of sexual desire. Yet the desiring subject is a hideous monster - a reflection, maybe, of Murphy's anxiety over the nature of his own passion.

Perhaps Murphy realized more or less unconsciously that he was approaching a fateful juncture: to continue painting would be to reveal more openly the truth of his secret urges and shame. (He considered "Wasp and Pear" his best work, by the way.) Yet to cover up the truth - by means, say, of an emptied-out formalism - would constitute a kind of creative suicide. Perhaps it was better, all things considered, to just stop painting.

In his later years, Murphy tended to dismiss the importance of his paintings, as if he were afraid someone might examine them too closely. Fortunately, through no effort of his own, his work was rediscovered in the late '50s and included in an exhibition devoted to under-known American artists called "American Genius in Review No. 1" at the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts in 1960. In 1962, Gerald and Sara were reintroduced to the world in a New Yorker article called "Living Well is the Best Revenge," by Calvin Tomkins, who'd discovered them residing quietly next door to his own home in the Hudson River-side town of Snedens Landing, N.Y. And shortly before Gerald's death in 1964, his friend the poet Archibald MacLeish donated "Wasp and Pear" to MoMA.

Since then, the legend of Gerald and Sara Murphy has only grown more lustrous. But it's unlikely they'll live ever again so vividly as they do in this wonderful exhibition.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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

At: Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, through Nov. 11. 413-597-2429, wcma.org

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