20th century, Arts

The Art of Being Zelda

By Lindsey Meyers

Zelda Fitzgerald is often cast in the reflected light of her husband, the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Where he is a celebrated literary figure, she is his ‘muse’. And where his work is said to capture the spirit of the Jazz Age, she is often objectified as a flapper, that is, a bold and trend setting woman of the 1920s. However, the real Zelda Fitzgerald was far more complex: she was also a ballerina, a painter and a writer who creatively explored her subjectivity through art. A study of her works reveals the extent to which she tried to remove herself from the celebrity of her flapper-dom. Nonetheless, Zelda remains paradoxically trapped in this image. Indeed, she became a flapper to express her freedom only to be ironically ensnared by the image of her own freedom as a flapper. As a result, Zelda is a fascinating case study of a woman imprisoned by the objectification of her own desire to be free.

If art is a conduit to comprehending the true nature of the artist, turning to Zelda’s works is perhaps the best method of grasping the ‘true’ Zelda. In doing so, we must first acknowledge the irony inherent in using the same images that simultaneously trapped her. Nonetheless, it is generally agreed that her novel Save Me the Waltz is the best way to explore her subjectivity. (Fitzgerald. Z, Save Me The Waltz (London 2001)) Though this work is ostensibly about a woman named Alabama, many regard it as Zelda’s autobiography. In fact, one may find it akin to self-psychoanalysis, since Zelda’s Alabama seems to be a doppelganger for Zelda herself; for, as Alabama is a southern belle with a reckless and liberated sense of self, so, too, was Zelda. Hence, as readers gaze into the mirror of the text to see Alabama, they also see the autobiographical reflection of Zelda’s subjectivity.

It is therefore instructive to observe how the youthful Alabama often finds a distorted image of herself when she looks in the mirror. Whether Alabama is painted with blush or painting a face, acting as a character different from her true nature, she does not see her true reflection when she gazes into a mirror any more than Zelda sees herself in her objectified image as a flapper. For Zelda, a flapper was not so much an individual woman as she was an objectification of what she calls ‘the art of being… being young, being lovely, being an object’. (Fitzgerald. Z, ‘What Became of the Flappers?’ McCall’s, October 1925, in Bruccoli. M, The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald (London, 1991) p.397-399.) As a result, the flapper that was intended to represent a liberating feminine identity ironically became an objectified figure that restricted Zelda’s freedom to realize her self-identity. Not surprisingly, she believed that this objectification would destroy the ideal of the flapper, since the freedom supposedly entailed in its ideal was bounded instead by the limitations of its commercial objectification. Thus Zelda, in her Eulogy to a Flapper, (Fitzgerald. Z, ‘Eulogy to a Flapper’ Metropolitan Magazine June 1922 in Bruccoli. M The Collected Writings p.391-395) links the demise of the flapper to commoditization of its ideals. Though this analysis was prescient, what turned out to be true for the flapper in general did not apply to Zelda in specific. For, as the ideal of the flapper became passe in time, the attribution of Zelda as a flapper continued to be fuelled by society, even as she simultaneously rebelled against its stigmatizing limitations.

The detrimental impact of the aesthetic ideal is represented through the complications that arise in the relationship between Alabama and her husband David. Because David married his objectified image of Alabama, their relationship is flawed from its inception; David idealizes Alabama’s ‘femininity’ and thereby obstructs her true self. Because this representation was not a veridical self-reflection, the lack of true understanding in their relationship predetermined their future problems. This is evident when Alabama tells David she is pregnant, but he is concerned only with buying gin. As the true weight of Alabama’s news is subordinated to David’s selfish wants, her concerns are shunted aside, and her feminine voice is silenced. Thus, after David successfully conquers her love, Alabama is demoted from the woman who overmastered him with consuming erotic desire in the beginning of their relationship to nothing more than an object. In exploring love as a power relationship, Zelda suggests that the feminine voice is silenced once a woman becomes subjugated to a man. For, once Alabama is captured by David and transformed into his object, his vision of her is subverted as she loses her voice and power over him. Thus, the extent to which Alabama’s voice is no longer heard reveals Zelda’s desire to expose the toll exacted by performance ‘in a culture where commodification has shaped feminine identity’. (Davis. S. W, Living to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s (Durham, 2000), p.144)

Just as Zelda turned to ballet after the birth of her child Scottie, her fictional alter-ego Alabama is also a ballet dancer. This is significant particularly because ballet movement as a form of art is often silent and therefore emblematic of the beautiful artistic traits of the older Alabama. Indeed, the silence of ballet is particularly apt because it is a trope for what we have seen was the loss of Alabama’s feminine voice. Furthermore, the fact that the Alabama’s ballerina body appears beautiful, but becomes deformed in the process of dancing, also suggests a correspondence between Alabama and Zelda. Zelda was interested in the brutal effect of dance on the ballerina’s body in her own art. Thus, one of her paintings (Ballet Figures, 1941) illustrates the effect of the dance on the feet of the ballerina. Mangled and deformed in the name of art, the ballerina’s feet in Zelda’s painting produces a vision of beauty belied by deformation – one that deconstructs the ideal of the feminine beauty it represents, just as her objectification as a flapper deformed her self-identity. Moreover it is interesting to consider that both Alabama and Zelda failed as dancers because their bodies were simply considered too old. This suggests that feminine artistic expression is limited by bodily perception in a culture that commercializes female identity.

This trap posed by the feminine ideal perhaps fueled Zelda’s later madness and explains her ties to the surrealist movement. The scholar Simone Weil Davis observes that ‘women working among the surrealists often split their attentions, as did Zelda, between playing the model and muse, and creating their own canvases or texts’. This understanding captures Fitzgerald’s creative and aesthetic sense just as it also underscores the limitations of the flapper persona she created. For, as much as the flapper is a woman envisioned by man as a construct of feminine objectification she will be an object of our times.

‘The flapper! She is growing old. She forgets her flapper creed [earlier defined: ‘to give and get amusement’] and is conscious only of her flapper self. . . . [She] has gone it last, where all good flappers go–into the young married set, into boredom and gathering conventions and the pleasure of having children, having lent for a while a splendor and courageousness and brightness to life, as all good flappers should.’ (Fitzgerald. Z. ‘What Became of the Flappers’ McCall’s, October 1925, in Bruccoli. M, The Collected Writings p.397-401)

That Zelda is always objectified as a flapper, anti-flapper, woman and mother speaks to her representational power. While it was not perhaps her desire, her life and art exemplify the problematic relationship between freedom and the cultural objectification of the feminine.

Chesler. P, Women and Madness (New York, 1997)
Milford. N, Zelda: A Biography (New York, 1970)
Fitzgerald. F. S, The Crack Up: With Other Pieces and Stories (New York, 1983)

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