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Revel in decade of dance and decadence

MTG Hawke’s Bay’s latest exhibition “Tender is the Night: dancing, jazz and the lost generation” opens to the public next Saturday, 21 December, four days before Christmas. The title “Tender is the Night” references the novel written by F Scott Fitzgerald in 1934.

The exhibition is in the form of a vignette – providing a fleeting glance of a romantic time where people lived for the moment, life became faster and there was an almost manic determination to endlessly party. The decade was the 1920s  when Art Deco, also known as the ‘Jazz Age’ and ‘Roaring 20s’, was in full swing.

Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were the face of the Jazz Age, a term he coined and described as “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history”. Together they embodied the wild and glittering romance of the 1920s and the restless rebellion of their generation.

In the aftermath of World War I, a group of young adults from Europe and America known as the ‘Lost Generation’ emerged. Having seen pointless death on a huge scale, many lost faith and belief in traditional values. Along with disillusionment and a lack of purpose, those who survived the war suffered from survivors’ guilt. Fitzgerald described them as “a generation grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

Moral principles shattered - hedonism, aimlessness and focus on material wealth ensued and the Lost Generation started exploring their own set of values. With decadence and panache, youth disregarded the traditional morals of their elders, demanding more and craving the very best that life could offer.

Flappers personified this new movement: a group of rebellious, revolutionary women, who did what they wanted to, and not what society dictated was appropriate. They began their counter-culture movement by fighting for women’s rights, promoting open female sexuality, and advocating the idea that a woman was a free person, entitled to her own decisions.

Zelda Fitzgerald, one of America’s first flappers, embraced the new freedoms of the age, redefining what femininity was. She behaved scandalously: drank in public in spite of Prohibition, smoked cigarettes, wore makeup and short dresses, bobbed her hair and danced on tables. Zelda wrote, “Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all, to heart.”

From this profound sense of freedom, new styles of dance and jazz music emerged in America. Part of the excitement of illegal nightclubs and speakeasies, which sold alcohol during the Prohibition, was the headiness of jazz music. Jazz burst into mainstream life through the emergence of more advanced recording devices and the musical brilliance of musicians such as Duke Ellington.

From the early 1920s the dance scene produced a variety of eccentric trends.
The first of these were the Breakaway and the Charleston, both based on African-American musical styles and beats. The Black Bottom dance, which involved kicking up your heels, was very popular in the later part of the 1920s and became a national craze. By 1927, the Lindy Hop became the dominant social dance.

Woven throughout the display are quotes from F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, the handsome young man who was the laureate and symbol of his restless generation. His classic novels captured the vibrant spirit and lush atmosphere of Art Deco, a style shaped in his words, “by all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the war.”

‘Tender is the Night’ highlights the eclectic nature of Art Deco objects from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection. Open from 21 December, we warmly invite you to come in and immerse yourself in the frivolous vibrancy of a moment in time.

15 December 2019

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