Whimsical paintings from the Jazz Age

"The Queen's Croquet" ("Alice in Wonderland" series), undated, Courtesy of Eleanor Lanahan

The paintings by Zelda Fitzgerald will be on display at Pepperdine University’s Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art beginning Saturday.

By Pam Linn / Special to The Malibu Times

To be half of the fabled couple that epitomized the culture and society of the 1920s was, for Zelda Fitzgerald, to be forever in the shadow of her husband. It was the famed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, after all, who coined the terms “flapper” and “The Jazz Age.”

Zelda found another outlet for her creative talent in painting. Her works were seldom exhibited in her lifetime, and after her death in 1948, many were lost. But 54 of her watercolors, inspired by literature and her life with Scott, will be shown in the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University from Oct. 15 to Dec. 18.

The exhibit, “Zelda by Herself: The Art of Zelda Fitzgerald,” includes a series depicting fairy tales with dynamic interpretations of the traditional children’s literature she learned in childhood and later read to her daughter, Scottie.

Among these are six watercolor and gouache paintings depicting events from each of the six chapters of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

Ranking among her richest and most fascinating paintings, these works use expressive color, dynamic compositions and complex narratives. She managed to convey visually Carroll’s double meanings, his trademark satire and his love of the absurd, as in “Queen’s Croquet.” It seems fairy tales allowed her to exercise her vivid imagination and to return to a time of innocence.

Another series, “Cityscapes,” circa 1944, depicts scenes of places where she had lived with her husband and young daughter years before. Largely autobiographical, they are essentially fanciful and highly imaginative cityscapes of Paris and New York. Their subjects-Grant’s Tomb, Washington Square, Arc de Triomphe, Place de l’Opera, etc.-focus on fondly remembered landmarks. These romantic but pensive and contemplative images have an elegiac mood; they attempt to return to the carefree days of her marriage to Scott, who had died of a heart attack in 1940. The New York scenes, such as Times Square, are rendered in a low-key tonality, with silvery grays counterbalanced with chalky salmons. The mood, far from melancholy, is more like an intense dream.

The fact that she painted at all is a sign of the depth of Zelda’s creativity. She didn’t study art formally she just took up a brush and started to paint. The results really capture the spirit that drove her.

After the phenomenal success of Scott’s first three novels -“This Side of Paradise,” “The Beautiful and the Damned” and “The Great Gatsby”-they became the “It” couple, regularly covered in magazines and newsreels. As they became wealthy, they started to travel, moving to Paris in 1924. There they became part of a circle of writers and artists who included Picasso and Hemingway, Constantin Brancusi and Gertrude Stein. It is believed their influence inspired Zelda to begin painting seriously in 1925.

Zelda also was a wonderful writer and the pair did work together a great deal, producing short stories under both their names. Some scholars think many were written by Zelda alone but published under his name because he was more prominent.

To Scott, Zelda embodied the 1920s woman, headstrong and strong-willed, the type of modern woman who did things her own way. Before World War I, women just didn’t behave like that. The interesting thing is she was very defiant in breaking the mold of what a woman was supposed to do.

And though they inspired one another, they also antagonized each other. Scott used to take dialogue for his female characters from her diaries. That really bothered her. It was a tumultuous relationship. By the late ’20s the fairy-tale life started to unwind. His drinking created problems in the marriage. She was always acting out, exaggerating things, She was into drama. There was a powder keg dynamic where each one could explode at any minute.

From then on the lives that had such promise became rather sad. She had a nervous breakdown in 1930; Scott decided he was going to try to be a success in Hollywood and that never really worked out. He died of a heart attack in 1940.

The great irony is that the period after Zelda’s first breakdown was her most creative. She wrote her one and only novel, “Save Me the Waltz,” in 1932. The bulk of her paintings were done in the ’30s and ’40s. It’s the story of the couple’s life through her paintings.

She wasn’t just creative in her art, she lived her life creatively. The art is a document to this.

The opening reception for “Zelda by Herself” takes place Saturday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The exhibition and tour was organized by International Arts and Artists, Washington, D.C. The Fitzgerald’s granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, will lecture on Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald at Pepperdine Nov. 22, 7 p.m.-

8 p.m.