“Don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, before finishing his manuscript for “The Great Gatsby.”
The original gouache painting by Spanish artist Francis Cugat that became the iconic cover of the great American novel — an image of seductively melancholic eyes and bright red lips disembodied in a midnight blue sky over a fiery cityscape — is a fitting highlight of the exhibition “Anything Goes: The Jazz Age,” on view at the Nassau County Museum of Art through July 8.
Perhaps no place better embodies the Roaring ‘20s than Long Island’s Gold Coast with its elegant mansions (like the museum’s 145-acre estate) brought to life by Fitzgerald in the masterpiece he conceived while living in Great Neck and completed in France. “There was this transatlantic back and forth, especially between Paris and New York, with all these great geniuses — Picasso, Gershwin, Cole Porter,” says Charles Riley, the museum’s director and author of two books on the so-called Mad Decade. “After World War I ended, everyone was delirious and cut loose in literature, music and art.”
Riley has put together an ambitious show, comprising some 200 objects encapsulating the period’s explosive creativity and achievements. First-recorded sounds by the likes of Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington waft from the library gallery, filled with working horned Victrolas, and radios in Art Deco-style cabinets loaned by local collectors and brothers Jay and Brian Tartell. “To do a Jazz Age show,” Riley says, “you have to do the music right.”
Nearby rooms boast works by modernist titans of Europe — Picasso, Léger, Miro, Matisse, Beckmann — and big names from the United States — Stuart Davis, Man Ray, John Marin and Florine Stettheimer, among them. Artistic breakthroughs included crossing boundaries of specialization. We see Gershwin as a visual artist represented by a drawing of his shrink, and poet e.e. cummings with a portrait of the American supermodel Marion Morehouse.
“We discovered the cummings in a box at the Lachaise Foundation. He and Gaston Lachaise were best friends,” notes Riley, who has given an entire room to Lachaise’s sculptures, including a monumental cast of “Elevation,” the first full-scale expression of the artist’s modernist take on the idealized female form. Other surprising treasures from the period include an unknown drawing by Kiki de Montparnasse, discovered among the papers of Man Ray, whose own portrait of the muse is also on view.
Further reflecting the extraordinary breadth of the exhibition are a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (which survived the 1920s book burning), a black Chanel dress from a prominent designer’s archival collection, posters of Josephine Baker by her onetime lover Paul Colin, dazzling flapper-era jewelry from the collection of the Macklowe Gallery, memorabilia documenting historic aviation events on Long Island’s air strips, photos of Babe Ruth and a vintage stadium seat from Yankee Stadium.
To be sure, the torrent of culture and innovation that defines the age “was so profuse that it belies the brevity of the period,” notes Riley. “Anything Goes: The Jazz Age” will likely have visitors sharing its curator’s sentiment. “I wished I lived then,” he says.
WHAT “Anything Goes: The Jazz Age”
WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, through July 8, Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Drive, Roslyn Harbor
INFO $12, $8 ages 62 and older, $4 students and ages 4-12; 516-484-9338,nassaumuseum.org