New picture of Zelda emerges By herself: An exhibit of her artwork at Evergreen House shows that Zelda Fitzgerald was more than just the beautiful and disturbed wife of the novelist.

March 25, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Zelda. The name is magic. Say it, and everybody in the room instantly knows whom you mean. But we think of only part of her: Zelda the wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. We think of their joy-ride through the Roaring '20s and their crackup in the '30s, when Zelda, mentally ill, bounced from hospital to hospital.

Only gradually is the other Zelda coming to public attention: Zelda the novelist and short story writer, Zelda the artist. "Zelda Fitzgerald: The Collected Writings" was published in 1991, but until now her visual art has remained almost totally unknown. Starting today, Baltimoreans have the opportunity to see it.

"Zelda by Herself," an exhibit of 54 of her paintings, opens today at the Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen House. They include everything from cityscapes to biblically inspired scenes, from the paper dolls and doll costumes she made for her daughter, Scottie, to a painted lamp shade depicting family members, friends and the places they lived.

These are not just the noodlings of a Sunday painter. The show will be accompanied by a book, "Zelda: An Illustrated Life," to be published by Harry N. Abrams next month. It contains an essay by Jane Livingston, former assistant director of Washington's Corcoran Gallery. "Zelda Fitzgerald had a kind of supernally innate, and fecund, giftedness," Livingston writes.

"I don't think anyone would claim that she was one of the great artists of the 20th century; that would be ridiculous," Livingston says. "But on the other hand, within its own limitations, it's tremendously interesting and vital work, which I think is very deserving of attention.

"If Zelda weren't who she is, the work would not be quite as interesting. I wouldn't say forget that and look at the work on its own merits, because of course it's interesting in relation to her life and who she was."

Born in 1900 in Montgomery, Ala., Zelda Sayre married Scott Fitzgerald at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on April 3, 1920, just a week after the publication of his first novel, "This Side of Paradise." Not long before, she had written to him, "Both of us are very flashy, vivid pictures, those kind with the details left out, but I know our colors will blend, and I think we'll look very well hanging beside each other in the gallery of life."

They raced around America and Europe during the 1920s, the years of Scott's success above all with "The Great Gatsby," published in 1925. That was the year when, vacationing in Capri, Zelda began to paint. Through the 1920s, however, she was more occupied with writing, and her novel, "Save Me the Waltz," was published in 1932.

By that time she and Scott were in Baltimore. Zelda had a breakdown in 1930, and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. From 1932 until 1936, the Fitzgeralds lived mainly in Baltimore, where Zelda was a patient at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital, and later at Sheppard Pratt Hospital.

During the 1930s, Zelda practiced her art primarily as therapy, but she also entered the Independent Artists Exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1933 and had an exhibit in New York in 1934.

It was during the 1940s, after Scott's death in 1940, when she was living at home in Alabama with periodic stays at Highland Hospital in North Carolina, that she pursued her art most seriously. She became especially proficient at a technique of painting with gouache (opaque watercolor), sometimes combined with other media, on paper.

"It is clear not only that Zelda had considerable facility in the medium of combined watercolor, pastel and gouache on paper, but that she worked with enormous discipline and purpose toward the end of mastering this technique," writes Livingston.

No one knows how many works Zelda produced, because some of them burned in a fire at Highland Hospital in 1948 that also killed Zelda. Her granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan says that the family is aware of about 200. Lanahan and her sister and brother, Cecilia Ross and Samuel Lanahan, own the 54 works that have come to Baltimore. The show debuted at the Fleming Museum of the University of Vermont in Burlington, and is expected to continue to Zelda's home town of Montgomery, then to Tokyo and possibly elsewhere.

At its best, Zelda's work reveals great charm, along with considerable skill and some knowledge of the art of her time. "Among the artists of her day, her work resonates with American artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Demuth or the early Stuart Davis," writes Livingston. She thinks Zelda's best work was done in her paintings illustrating fairy tales, and especially those of the late 1940s on the subject of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

"Using every technique available to her jarringly expressive color, dynamic composition and narrative complexity the artist in these small pictures communicates on several levels," Livingston writes. "Carroll's double meanings, his trademark stamp of satire and his love of the absurd, come across loud and clear in these images."

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