With the magnetic images of high glamour, extravagant parties and sensational flappers that the Roaring Twenties left behind, more than any other era they have held a prominent and dazzling allure in the chronicles of our American consciousness. With the excitement of the era that F. Scott Fitzgerald himself coined the “Jazz Age” came a slew of technological, social and cultural innovations that exploded across the country. From progressive fashion to human decadence to bold liberated women, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seems to celebrate, criticize and above all, eloquently characterize the highly romanticized era.
In conjunction with the assignment of the classic for Cornell’s 2006 New Student Reading Project, the Johnson Museum has erected an exhibit titled “American Art from the ‘Great Gatsby’ Era,” and in its images, the luxury of Jay Gatsby and the enchantment of Daisy Buchanan come to life. From Bernice Abbott’s photograph Untitled (Woman with Pearls) to Edward Steichen’s Greta Garbo, Hollywood, the image of the pearl-draped bob-wearing woman glorifies the era with a gracefully provocative and characteristically sultry-eyed gaze. With a move that seems to represent the “modern woman” of the time, the women in each of these photos boldly invite the viewer to return the gaze. Their eyes do not share the blankness of the posed photographed women from earlier eras, but seem to actually have something to say. Whether their statements are those of seduction or self-assuredness are, of course, open to interpretation.
The Gatsby glamour is beautifully portrayed in Martin Lewis’s Shadow Dance and Charleston Practice, where his flapper girls elegantly dance the Charleston on a rooftop. With the inclusion of costume, the exhibit materializes the charm of the flapper, displaying a black-beaded evening dress from the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection (housed in Martha Van Rensselaer hall) that was, in fact, a personal possession of Martha Van Rensselaer. In this dress, which exhibits the modern shapelessness of the time and a low dropped waist, we can see the masculinity of golf star Jordan Baker, or the reckless attraction of Daisy Buchanan.
Also exhibited is a fabulous cloche hat worn by the women of the time, a hat which one could only wear properly if the hair was cropped short and flat. With its neighboring men’s driving cap, it is easy to imagine Gatsby and Daisy speeding wildly down the road.
The Art Deco evening jacket displays an imaginary New York skyline, with two copies of the Chrysler building marked on the back. The role of New York City plays a significant role in the exhibit, reoccurring in several pieces as the backdrop of a glamorous, glowing life. From Louis Lozowick’s Madison Avenue to Howard Cook’s Chrysler Building, a glorification of New York City as an impressive icon in itself exemplifies the era’s progression with the presentation of newer, taller, more magnificent buildings.
The obsession with the idea of newer, taller and more magnificent resonates in The Great Gatsby as both a point of excitement and criticism. While Fitzgerald’s narrator is drawn to the wealthy and sensational socialite life, he views this life with a critical eye. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made,” Fitzgerald writes.
This carelessness is highlighted in pieces like George Grosz’s piece Drinking and Dancing Couples which illustrates the debauchery of champagne swigging party life, where men dance with half naked women whose gauzy clothing reveals fleshy, sexualized bodies.
While the glamour and the spirit of indulgence are glorified, this exhibit reminds us that the era encompassed a great deal more than a long and pretty party. As the contrast between rich city life and rural impoverishment is heightened, pieces such as Dorothea Lange’s Ex-slave with a Long Memory and Tomas Hart Benton’s Missouri Farmyard and Cradling Wheat leave a distinctly poignant mark as we see the arduous working life outside of the Chrysler Building’s glow. It reminds us that there was a whole lot more to American life than the romanticized festivities of an exciting new time, and it also reminds us of the struggles of the Depression the subsequently ensued.
Most of all, it reminds us that the Great Jay Gatsby was also just the plain James Gatz born on a farm in North Dakota. Can we help but admire how greatly he pursued his American dream?