“Such Friends”:  100 years ago, Fall, 1921, Belleville, outside of Paris

From his high perch atop the step ladder, American ex-pat Gerald Murphy, 33, can get a better view of the huge canvas he is working on, refurbishing the sets for the Ballets Russes.

Serge Diaghilev, 49, the founder and director of the ballet company, has asked Gerald, his wife Sara, just turned 38, and some other young students who are studying painting to travel out here daily to his atelier to work on restoring the sets designed for his Ballet by local artists. Such as George Braque, 39. Andre Derain, 41. Pablo Picasso, 40.

Serge Diaghilev

The Murphys jumped at the chance. Not only have they had the opportunity to meet some of the top cubist painters of the time, they get to hang out with the crowd around the Ballets Russes. Gerald is thrilled that they are not only allowed to watch rehearsals, they are expected to. And to discuss their opinions of the work.

These artists are not like the ones the Murphys have known before in America. Gerald sees Picasso as “a dark, powerful physical presence,” like a bull in a Goya painting. And the Spaniard seems particularly interested in Sara.

Their life in Paris is so much different—so much better—than what they left behind in America when they boarded the SS Cedric for Southampton, England, in June.

Gerald has taken a leave of absence from the landscape architecture course he was enrolled in at Harvard. They packed up the kids—Honoria, 3 ½; Baoth, 2; and Patrick, 8 months—and the nanny and spent some time in England visiting the stately homes that Sara had known when she lived there as a child.

Didn’t like it. Really hot summer and the gardens were all parched and brown.

So they decided to go to Paris for a bit and then head home.

But when the Murphy family arrived here in early September, their American friends convinced them to stay. Everyone’s coming to Paris.

After they had been in their furnished apartment at 2 rue Greuze for about a month, Gerald was stopped in his tracks by a display in the window of an art gallery:  Cubist paintings, like the ones he had seen in the Armory Show in New York eight years ago, by some of the same artists—Braque, Derain, Picasso.

Gerald told Sara,

That’s the kind of painting that I would like to do.”

He and Sara found a recently arrived Russian cubist/futurist, Natalia Goncharova, 40, who teaches painting in her studio on the rue de Seine in the Left Bank, and they have been taking lessons from her every day. Goncharova only allows abstract painting, nothing representational. Or, as Sara says,

No apple on a dish.”

Natalia Goncharova

Goncharova has created set designs for Diaghilev, so she told the Russian impresario about her eager American students and he immediately sensed an opportunity for free labor, getting his sets fixed up for the coming spring season.

The Murphys don’t mind volunteering their services. They have Sara’s family income of about $7,000 a year, and the franc is going for less than 20 cents on the dollar.

And in France, they can have cocktails with dinner. No Prohibition.

Set and costume designs by Picasso for the Ballets Russes

“Such Friends”:  100 Years Ago… is the basis for the series, “Such Friends”:  The Literary 1920s. Volumes I and II covering 1920 and 1921 are available as signed copies at Riverstone Books, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, PA, and in print and e-book formats on Amazon. For more information, email me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com.

At the end of February I will be talking about the Publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Manager as Muse, about Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ relationships with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, is also available on Amazon in both print and e-book versions.

If you want to walk with me through Bloomsbury, you can download my audio walking tour, “Such Friends”:  Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.