Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 28, 2005 with the permission of the R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, LA and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, written in conjunction with the exhibition "Zelda by Herself: The Art of Zelda Fitzgerald" appearing at The R.W. Norton Art Gallery from February 13 through April 10, 2005, please contact the R. W. Norton Art Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

A Tincture of Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald and Modernist Art

by Everl Adair

 

Though the popularity of the film A Beautiful Mind has helped to cement the notion of there being a thin line between genius and madness, the idea is not a new one. More than twenty centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in a fragment known of "Problemata XXX", wondered why so many of the leading figures of his time suffered from what he called "melancholy" and what we today would probably refer to as a mood disorder. The Roman writer Seneca insisted that, "There is no great genius without a tincture of madness." Many writers and psychiatrists today are pondering the connection between creativity and mental illness. Psychiatrist Kay Jamison, who suffers from bipolar mood disorder herself, has written about a number of key artistic figures in various fields who she feels have shown elements of either bipolar mood disorder (the new term for manic-depressive illness) or major depression in their lives in her book, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. A short, tentative list includes Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, Pyotor Tchaikovsky, Winston Churchill, and Virginia Woolf. All of these people managed to produce major works of art while struggling with debilitating mental problems. Yet another famous person who struggled to be artistically fruitful while suffering from mental illness was famed flapper, Zelda Fitzgerald. (right: Zelda Fitzgerald, Lady of the Court)

Zelda has always been more famous for being the crazy wife of noted novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald than for her own artistic endeavors, but that is at last beginning to change. Her novel Save Me the Waltz has been reissued, there are plans afoot to publish her second, unfinished novel, and a new exhibition, "Zelda by Herself: The Art of Zelda Fitzgerald" is on tour, appearing at The R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana from February 13 through April 10, 2005. Contemporary biographers of Zelda concede, for the most part, that she definitely suffered from mental illness, but disagree that she was schizophrenic, as doctors initially described her. Schizophrenia was indiscriminately diagnosed, particularly in Switzerland and the United States, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, applied to virtually anyone who showed signs of psychosis. When a study in the 1960's indicated that there were far more patients diagnosed with schizophrenia in the United States than in Great Britian, or most other European countries, psychiatrists at last developed a standard set of diagnostic criteria. Most researchers today, based on the information available and diagnostic standards, believe that Zelda Fitzgerald, along with Van Gogh and other famous "schizophrenics", almost certainly suffered from bipolar mood disorder instead. Since schizophrenia is a thought disorder, rather than a mood disorder, schizophrenics tend to gradually lose their sense of self, growing increasingly unorganized in thought and incoherent in speech and writing, talking "ragtime", or what psychiatrists refer to as "word salad". For example, a farewell note to psychiatrist Susan Baur from one of her patients read, "Good-bye and go lucky, you too!" Zelda, on the other hand, had recurring periods of lucidity and even eloquence. Andrew Turnbull, in his biography of Scott Fitzgerald, wrote that even when disturbed, "she wrote a letter better than most people are capable of in their right minds." Peter D. Kramer, in an article for The New York Times Magazine, "How Crazy Was Zelda?", points out:

Zelda's spending sprees, her "passionate love of life"
and intense social relationships, her melancholic
response to disappointment and the relatively late
onset of her illness . . . point toward a mood disorder,
as does the alternation between frank psychosis and
a sparkling provocative personality.

Zelda certainly suffered from psychosis. Friends in 1929 noticed that she was becoming emotionally frayed and tended to sudden bursts of laughter and other inappropriate emotional reactions. She made a number of suicidal gestures, including taking an overdose of pills and attempting to steer a car off a cliff. Her speech patterns altered, with an increasing number of non sequiturs. Gerald Murphy reported that she apparently had hallucinations about what was actually appearing on screen when he attended a movie with her, and Tallulah Bankhead recorded, "I was there in the south of France, when Zelda, poor darling, went off her head. She had gone into a flower shop and suddenly for her all the flowers had faces." Zelda herself later wrote:

Suddenly last spring I began to see all red while I worked
or I saw no colors -- I could not bear to look out of windows,
for sometimes I saw humanity as a bottle of ants . . .
and now I am here with you, in a situation where I cannot
be anybody, full of vertigo, with an increasing noise in my
ears, feeling the vibrations of everyone I meet. Broken down.

Essentially, Zelda was feeling the same pained bewilderment that led a later mental patient, as described in Susan Baur's The Dinosaur Man, to cry out to her psychiatrist, "My brain plays tricks on me! You don't know about betrayal until your own brain lets you down."

Most modern theories about the strong connection between creativity and mental illness suggest that both spring from a genetic predisposition that limits a process called latent inhibition. Most individuals have, in a sense, "filters", that control the amount and type of information that their brains take in from the world and enable them to order that information in a systematic way. But others' thought processes are over-inclusive; they take in much more information and make many more connections that are not immediately obvious. Some of this makes them creative; too much of it makes them crazy. (right: Zelda Fitzgerald, Mad Tea Party)

The occasionally close relationship between art and mental disorder was less apparent in ages that produced exclusively representational art, where the standard was the degree to which the art object resembled the actual object. But at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, a massive shift in consciousness occurred across the landscape of Western thought, embracing physics, psychology, and all of the arts in terms of our perception of reality. In art, the opening blow came at the hands of the Impressionists. Critics and audiences were still trying to assimilate that pictorial mode when the Post-Impressionists, later known as modernists, turned the art world upside down. No longer content to merely mirror reality, artists began to personalize their experience of it; in "An Overview: Post-Impressionism and North American Art", Peter Morrin explains, "The transformation was from art as a mode of description to art as a mode of experience." Artists rejected old academic methods, opting for spontaneity, bursts of color, simplified forms, and even new and sometimes shocking subject matter. In association with a 1910 exhibition, "Manet and the Post-Impressionists", Roger Fry wrote:

[I]t is the boast of those who believe in this school, that
its methods enable the individuality of the artist to find
completer self-expression in his work than is possible to
those who have committed themselves to representing
objects more literally . . . [B]y our simplification of
nature we shock and disconcert our contemporaries.

Naturally, this approach demanded much more from its audience than simple appreciation. Artist Arshile Gorky wrote that art must "force the viewer to contribute something of himself in order that he extract as much as possible out of the particular work." And when the viewer found himself either bewildered or bemused, he could turn to the services of an art critic. It is not surprising that art criticism emerges as a force at just the moment that art steps away from the literal rendition of the real; scholar Cynthia Freeland in But is it art? explains, "[Art] can communicate feelings and emotions, or thoughts and ideas. Interpretation is important because it explains how art does this."

Artists were now less the preservers of images than agitators and provocateurs. They were probing the dark nature of Freud's subconscious mind, the power of Jung's collective unconscious, the tenuous boundaries of Einstein's time and space. These were the artists and thinkers who informed and inspired Zelda.

Though there is some evidence that Zelda had been interested in art earlier in her life, she began painting on a regular basis in 1925 in Rome when ill health forced her to slow down her usual rapid pace and limited her social life. As a friend of both sets of famous American expatriate art patrons, the Steins and the Murphys, she had already been introduced to both the persons and the art of innovators like Picasso, Picabia, Matisse, Leger, and Brancusi. In addition, her love of theatre and the ballet in particular, led to a special appreciation and assimilation of the set designs of Leon Bakst and Mikhail Larionov. In his designs for the Ballet Russes, Bakst made sure that even the costumes reflected the mood and color palette of the set. She would borrow his concept of the "frozen moment" and apply it to her own work, along with his concern for line and color. From Larionov, she would take a Cubist perspective and certain elements of neoprimitivism. The inherent theatricality of these approaches would manifest itself in not only her paintings, particularly those of ballet dancers, but also in the series of highly elaborate paper dolls and fairy tale scenes that she created for her daughter Scottie.

From Rome, the Fitzgeralds moved on to Capri where Zelda took her first formal art lessons in color theory, as reflected in the brilliant colors of her early pieces. She began doing the flower paintings that would become one of her recurring themes during this period, always expressing admiration for the flower paintings of both Vincent Van Gogh ("Those crawling flowers and venomous vindictive blossoms are the hallucinations of a mad-man -- without organization or rhythm but with the power to sting and strangle . . . I loved them . . . they reassured me.") and Georgia O'Keefe ("To me she is the most moving and comprehensible painter I've ever seen. Diaghilev had a theory that the purpose of successful art was to shock the emotions. A person certainly could not walk about [O'Keefe's] exhibition and maintain any dormant feelings.").

During the same period, Zelda became, for a time, part of Natalie Barney's enclave of artists which included Romaine Brooks and other like-minded modernists. However, after she and Scott returned to Paris, she set her painting aside in order to focus on ballet. In terms of being perceived as a serious artist, that may have been her undoing. But there's little evidence that at that time Zelda thought of painting as a potential career. Her eyes were weak and constantly gave her trouble, since she refused to wear glasses. At any rate, she was determined to succeed at ballet instead. Despite her age, she managed to become proficient enough to secure an offer from a professional company, but turned it down. Not long after, she suffered her first mental breakdown.

Forbidden to work during her first incarceration in an asylum (they were "re-educating" her to accept her position as a wife and mother), Zelda didn't resume painting until her release in 1931. Her work was now compromised by the perception that it was more therapy than art. The fact that she hadn't attempted to establish herself as a professional artist before her breakdown, as well as her infamy as Scott Fitzgerald's crazy wife -- in Ring Lardner's famous phrase, they were "the novelist and the novelty" -- prevented her from being taken seriously now. Reactions to her first significant showing, a 1934 exhibition at Cary Ross's gallery in New York, tended to focus on her work as an expression of her mental illness rather than artistic intent. Dorothy Parker bought several pieces but complained that she couldn't hang them in her home because "There was that blood red color she used and the painful, miserable quality of emotion behind the paintings." Even though he purchased the piece, Gerald Murphy was clearly repulsed by "Chinese Theatre": "Those monstrous, hideous men, all with swollen intertwining legs. They were obscene . . . figures out of a nightmare, monstrous and morbid." Time magazine made a point of informing its readers that Zelda had to be accompanied by attendants when she left the asylum for a day against doctors' advice in order to attend her own show. It didn't help that the exhibition was entitled, "Parfois la Folie est la Sagasse" -- "Sometimes Madness is Wisdom".

And yet it should have been evident to anyone versed in the art of the period that Zelda was clearly working within a modernist framework. It certainly seems evident to us looking at the work today. Two things prevented its evaluation on its own merits and/or faults. The first was that, at that time, thanks to her husband who had, among other things, recently published a roman a clef about her breakdown, she was probably the world's most famous lunatic. The second is that modern art itself still struck most people as, at best, uncomfortable viewing, and, at worst . . . well, crazy. Just a couple of short decades before, Walter Pach, who was actually one of the first American champions of modern art, admitted, "I've been to Mr. Leo Stein's and the Matisses haven't gained any. I've about given up." In 1909, W.H. Fox, the critic for the Indianapolis News, reviewed an exhibition at the Salon d'Automne that included Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Cezanne, eliciting his comment, " . . . the apparent crudity in the manipulation of the paints and the singularity of the drawing was . . . astounding . . ." A review in the Montreal Daily Witness in 1913 sneered, "Immensity of canvas, screamingly discordant colors, and execrable drawing are the chief methods they have employed to jar the public eye, and having jarred it they are satisfied. That is their mission and they are proud of it." An exhibit in the mid-1920's at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts which included Modigliani, Lipchitz, De Chirico, Matisse, and Picasso was almost universally despised by American art critics, drawing comments such as, "It is as though the room were infested with some infectious scourge", "unpleasant to contemplate", "very odd", "incomprehensible", and "hard to see why the Academy should sponsor this sort of trash." Even all-American Thomas Hart Benton was rejected for a faculty position at the Academy in 1923 on the grounds that he was an "extreme modernist". No museum in America purchased a modernist work until the late 1920's despite the Armory Show having introduced modernism to the country in 1913. Even in Europe as late as 1944, conservative critic Camille Mauclair was still leading the charge, denouncing Picasso and Chagall as "un talent fou" -- a crazy talent -- and insisting that a Braque painting could only have been produced by an asylum inmate. What chance then did an actual asylum inmate have for an unprejudiced evaluation of her work?

The genius or madman debate hadn't begun with Zelda, of course. It had been around for centuries, but among modernists, the standard bearer was Vincent Van Gogh. In 1892, Cecilia Warren wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, "One man in particular has the faculty of inflaming your imagination, till you feel ready to declare him one of the bringers of heavenly fire. And yet his art is mad." Fifty years later, in 1947, a retrospective of his work at Orangerie de Tuileries led to a debate over whether he was a genius or a madman, the terms apparently considered mutually exclusive, and an article written in that year for Arts magazine by Dr. Joachim Beer claimed Van Gogh was "a degenerate of the Magnan [sic] type". As respected as his work is today, it may be worth remembering that in his own lifetime, Van Gogh sold only a single painting. Though Van Gogh's genius was eventually recognized and overshadows the stigma of his illness, insanity has often precluded having one's work serious evaluated, or in some cases, even acknowledged. Brilliant Southern artist Walter Anderson, considered one of America's greatest painters today, was discounted as "crazy Bob Anderson" in his own home town during his lifetime. Like Zelda, Anderson had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and a pattern of recurrent mental troubles marked his life. In 1951, Anderson generously painted a mural for the Ocean Springs Community Center, asking only the sum of one dollar in recompense. Not only did local critics ignore the work entirely, one citizen commented to the town clerk, "Now I helped you get elected. The first thing I want you to do is get me enough nice white paint to cover that crap in the Community Center." Another Anderson mural for the bar of a dude ranch in Gulf Hills was painted over. However, a few years later, "that crap" at the Community Center was appraised at a value of $100,000 and people were coming from all over the country to see it, none of which lessened the locals' wariness of Anderson. Susan Baur records this all too common attitude in one of her patients' explanation of how others reacted to him: "He seemed to be telling me that he had come into the world with too much imagination and drive and that his constant need to fly while others walked aroused in almost everyone he met some form of fear or anger."

Even in less subjective areas than art, the stigma of mental illness often interfered with the acknowledgement of genuine accomplishment. Like Zelda and Anderson, mathematic genius John Nash was diagnosed as schizophrenic when struck by mental illness. Nash had already done ground-breaking work, producing key equations for game theory among other things. By 1988, every other significant contributor to game theory and virtually all major economists were Fellows in the Economic Society. Yet, even though Nash's disease was in remission at that time, when Ariel Rubenstein proposed him for membership in 1989, the other four committee members opposed even his nomination. The committee chair, Truman Bewley, baldly declared, "I doubt [Nash] would be elected, since he is well known to have been crazy for years," and dismissed the idea of a nomination as "frivolous". Though Nash was elected by an overwhelming majority of Fellows when Rubenstein forced his nomination in 1990, by-passing the committee and making a joint nomination with two other mathematicians, much the same scenario was played out when Nash was nominated for a Nobel Prize. Committee member Stahl vehemently opposed Nash's candidacy. "He's sick . . . You can't have a person like that," Stahl declared, irrespective of Nash's actual accomplishments. As Christer Kiselman, another member of the Nobel Academy governing board, explained, "[Stahl] was afraid of schizophrenia. So he had some prejudices. So he thought other people would think the same way."

Zelda found herself facing a similar prejudice five decades earlier. In 1933, Sara Haardt interviewed Zelda for a series on the wives of famous authors for Good Housekeeping. But editor W. F. Bigelow had heard about Zelda's insanity and refused to print the interview. If her illness made her anathema in her role as a wife, what were the chances she'd be respected as an artist? Not good. A decade after her exhibition at Cary Ross's gallery, Scottie, working at The New Yorker in 1944, gave Brendan Gill some of her mother's watercolors for publication. Gill considered it, but finally decided their "non-representational diagonal slashes, triangles and other geometric forms . . . the expression of a violent, undischarged rage . . . [were] works radically unsuited to The New Yorker". His comments are especially ironic when one considers that not only has The New Yorker often published work that matches his description, it doesn't hesitate to print and review work by such controversial contemporary artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Damien Hirst.

Zelda was aware that not everyone "got" her paintings, the same way most of them didn't "get" modernist art. One of her psychiatrists, Dr. Elgin, for whom Zelda repeatedly demonstrated little respect, told biographer Nancy Milford:

Once she condescended to tell me something about a
painting. Usually her paintings were blobs ­ line and
squares. This one was simple ­ a streak of brown at
the bottom, a blue streak in the middle and a little
brown object up in the corner. I asked her what it was
about. She said, "Oh, that's a table in Spain." I must
have looked puzzled, for she then said, "Seen from the
coast of the United States."

When Milford asked him if he thought Zelda might have been putting him on, the doctor seemed equally puzzled and replied that in those days he wouldn't have considered that a possibility.

Ironically, at just the time that critics were denouncing modernist art as crazy or degenerate, a German psychiatrist who had also studied art history, Hans Prinzhorn, began to collect and study art by mental patients. In 1922, he wrote a book which emphasized the formal and constructive values of much of their work, declaring, "Untrained, mentally ill persons, especially schizophrenics, frequently compose pictures which have many of the qualities of serious art . . ." Even earlier, in 1912, artist Paul Klee had urged critics and scholars to pay attention to such work; his own later paintings appear to have been strongly influenced by the Prinzhorn collection. Today, Outsider Art (art produced by the mentally ill, homeless, or those otherwise excluded from the mainstream) is a major movement and the work of schizophrenic artists like Henry Darger is highly valued. (right: Zelda Fitzgerald, Times Square)

But Zelda's work was not a product of her derangement. Like most artists who have suffered from mental illness, she created her paintings and drawings during her rational periods, not when she was in the throes of psychosis. All of them demonstrate a reasoned attempt to evoke a particular style, a particular emotion, a particular technique. In a painting like "Ballerinas Dressing", the elongated figures with enlarged appendages and knotted muscles clearly refer to the quasi-mannerist styles of Thomas Hart Benton and Paul Cadmus. A work like "Circus" shows the obvious influence of French artists Andre Lhote, Louis Marcoussis, and Andre Derain, as well as sharing a similar approach and subject matter to that of American painter Walter Kuhn. Art critic Jane Livingston has found references in Zelda's work to "Picasso's distortion of the figure", popular illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish and Arthur Rackham, and American artists "such as Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Demuth, or the early Stuart Davis."

Zelda Fitzgerald created as most professional artists do -- by building on the work of those who came before her. Not out of her madness, nor some perverted jealousy of her husband's gifts, but because, as she said in 1934, "[I]t's my way of communicating with someone." As Nancy Milford points out, from the late 1930's on, Zelda thought of herself as a professional artist. She kept notebooks in which she wrote down ideas, made sketches, and outlined her paintings. She submitted her paintings and drawings to various shows and exhibitions. She did what professionals do -- she worked at her craft every day. And she deserves to have her work seen in the same spirit in which it was created -- not as the jottings and daubings of a madwoman, but as the carefully considered and created works of a genuine artist.

 

About the author

Everl Adair is Communications Director at the R.W. Norton Art Gallery.

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