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The Waste Land & Art: An Intriguing Jumble

National Portrait Gallery, London
Patrick Heron: T.S. Eliot, 1949

“Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’: A visual response to T.S. Eliot’s poem” is a dense and many-layered exhibition— but, then, so is The Waste Land on first reading, with its multiple voices, echoes, and allusions. And the exhibition, like the poem, has a brave experimental energy. It feels right that it should be in the airy Turner Contemporary at Margate, Kent, with its glass walls gazing out over a gray English Channel, whipped by a cruel east wind, with the faded Georgian streets behind it, and the sea front with its amusement arcades and Dreamland fun-fair.

In the autumn of 1921, T.S. Eliot came to Margate after he collapsed from exhaustion and strain, before leaving to see the nerve specialist Dr. Vittoz in Lausanne, Switzerland. Sitting in a shelter overlooking the bay, he worked on his new poem, sending drafts for comment to Ezra Pound. He wrote drafts of part III, “The Fire Sermon,” with its river songs, where Tiresias, the blind seer, catches the lives of city-dwellers at the violet hour of dusk, and Elizabeth and Leicester float on the Thames. While Eliot wrote children played on the sand, and wounded soldiers, still recovering from the war, did their physical exercises. For Eliot himself, this was a bad time, a precarious stage between decline and recovery. In this section come the spoken lines, bitterly end-stopped:

“On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
            la la

Yet Margate was also a beginning, the birthplace of his Modernist masterpiece. In the exhibition we hear Eliot reading the poem, sonorous, precise in his articulation. We see him in two portraits by Patrick Heron, one pensive, wrapped in his big overcoat, the other abstract and abstracted, the face masked by heavy lines of paint, and divided—like the solipsistic self  of Eliot’s narrator: “We think of the key, each in his prison.” But The Waste Land breaks out of that prison, returning to the world with an austere, plangent beauty, singing of the army of the dead and the crowds of the present, blending Shakespeare, Ovid, Dante, Saint Augustine, and the Upanishads with the slang of the “unreal city.”

Leeds Museums and Galleries/Bridgeman Images
Paul Nash: The Shore, 1923

“Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’” tries, perhaps too hard, to embrace that multiplicity. Its origins are interesting. Three years ago, to commemorate Eliot’s stay, thirty-five local volunteers formed the Waste Land Research Group. Together, they read the poem, planned the exhibition, chose the artworks and the organization of the show. Defying Eliot’s “I can connect/ Nothing with nothing,” they were determined, instead, to build connections. This does not altogether work.

There’s an air of clutter, of packing too much in, of a lack of direction that leaves visitors baffled. The clue to the problem lies in the exhibition’s slippery subtitle, “A visual response to T.S. Eliot’s poem.” The show, it turns out, is not the response of artists, but of the group itself, and to express this, the members have taken different approaches to choosing the various sets of images. Some artworks here respond directly to The Waste Land, others to Eliot and Modernism more generally. Many more—like Walter Sickert’s uncomfortable pre-war couple in Off to the Pub (1911–1912), painted a decade before the poem was written—are included simply to conjure moods and themes.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
Philip Guston: East Coker-Tse, 1979

This leads to some haphazard choices. A slim booklet, arranged alphabetically by artist, replaces any information about the works with comments from group members. Thus Paul Nash’s austere The Shore (1923) is here because, “it reminds me of the beaches near where I grew up,” not because it captures the period’s bleakness so vividly in the rigid lines of Kent’s sea defenses. Mark Power’s photograph, France. Paris, Rue Bichat, 04:00 hours, 18th November 2015, is included because in witnessing the terrorist attack, “you’d probably feel not dissimilar to Eliot in writing The Waste Land.” Frederick Callcott’s Scale Surfboat Memorial (circa 1899) appears because “in the poem there are lots of images of people drowning,” and when Eliot was sitting in the Margate shelter, “he would have looked out to the spot where nine people died in 1897” when a lifeboat capsized. And so on.

Some of the chosen works, however, are fabulously powerful. In Philip Guston’s East Coker-Tse (1979), the grimly pink, flayed head of a dying Eliot is strainingly alive. In Cy Twombly’s huge, spattered, poetic, and sexy Four Seasons cycle (1993–1994), color sings, Virgil mutters in pencil, blood and nature, myth and gardens meet. That urgency is felt too in R.B. Kitaj’s If Not, Not (1975–1976), which refers directly to The Waste Land. The gatehouse of Auschwitz looms over a stagnant pool, a dead landscape, torn books, a broken bust of Matisse, a sacrificial lamb—a shoring-up of fragments: “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats/ And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief.” In the corner, a cradled Eliot wears a hearing aid, a poignant reminder of the poem’s resonance, its demand to be heard.

Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland
R. B. Kitaj: If Not, Not, 1975–1976

Just as haunting, in a quieter way, are three works by David Jones—like whispers echoing through a crowd. One is the frontispiece to In Parenthesis, his great poem about World War I, to which Eliot wrote the preface, with the half-naked soldier, the wire, the rat in the trench, and the men fleeing through the woods. Another is the delicate, tumbling shipboard watercolor of Trystan ac Essyllt (1962), catching the emotional charge of the song Eliot quotes, “Frisch weht der Wind.” The third, and most moving, is his graphic Nam Sybillam, made as a birthday present for Eliot in 1958. This incorporates “April is the cruelest month” beside Eliot’s epigraph from Petronius, where the Sibyl—doomed after asking Apollo that she may live as many years as there are grains in a handful of dust, but forgetting to demand eternal youth—is withered to nothing, hanging in a jar. When asked what she wants, she replies, “I want to die.”

The Sibyl of Cumae also appears here in J.M.W. Turner’s The Golden Bough (1834), the painting that gave its titles to J.G. Frazer’s 1890 book on comparative religion, one of Eliot’s acknowledged sources for The Waste Land. And the handful of dust is here, too, in Man Ray’s strange, small photograph, Dust Breeding (1920). Taken the year before Eliot began the poem, it shows a year’s dust that had gathered on his friend Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass. The image is not exactly “full of fear,” but complex and allusive, redolent of death and time passing, and yet of the search for new forms of art in Duchamp’s buried lines.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
Edward Hopper: Night Windows, 1928

A different search and retrospect is implied in Tacita Dean’s eerie film Sound Mirrors (1999), a study of the huge concrete dishes set up on the Kent coast during the World War I to catch the buzz of enemy aircraft. War throbs beneath Eliot’s poem. But intimate daily life is there, too, faithfully represented in this show. We hear jazz and music hall songs. We catch submerged lives. Edward Hopper’s Night Windows (1928) offers a voyeuristic glimpse of loneliness as the lighted windows reveal a room, a curtain blowing in the open window, a woman bending over in a pink shift. Shown here, it evokes Eliot’s typist in her bedsit:

Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over’.

And off she goes, “smoothes her hair with automatic hand/And puts a record on the gramophone.” Another woman’s voice is that of Lil, in the pub conversation (reported to Eliot by their maid, Ellen Kellond), who was never the same since she took the pills “to bring it off.” The pain behind that tired remark blazes out here in Paula Rego’s agonizingly sympathetic trilogy of abortion sketches in Triptych (1998).

The mix of images is memorable and intriguing. I wish there had been more rigor, more steely ruthlessness, to cut out the jumble, as Eliot reduced the long wandering drafts to the glittering compression of the published poem. But “Journeys with ‘The Waste Land'” has some enthralling works. I’m glad to have shared that journey—and to have returned to the poem once again.

Lakeland Arts Trust, Abbot Hall Art Gallery/Resource/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, National Art Collections Fund, Friends of the Lakeland Arts Trust, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Paula Rego: Abortion Sketches, 1998

“Journeys with ‘The Waste Land'” is at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, through May 7.