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Picturing “The Waste Land”

Picturing “The Waste Land”

An exhibition in Margate, where T.S. Eliot wrote his masterwork, explores the connections between art and poetry

An exhibition in Margate, where T.S. Eliot wrote his masterwork, explores the connections between art and poetry

Martin Oldham | February 8th 2018

Suffering from mental and physical exhaustion, the poet T.S. Eliot in 1921 spent a few weeks convalescing in Margate, an English seaside town. In a shelter on the seafront, he began writing what was to become one of the most important and influential works of modernist literature, “The Waste Land”. Turner Contemporary, an art gallery in Margate, is revisiting this moment, by staging an exhibition of art and other objects related to the poem.

“The Waste Land” is a notoriously complex and enigmatic poem. It was an expression not only of Eliot’s inner turmoil, but also of what he saw as a crisis of civilisation caused by the trauma of the first world war: the disintegration of authority, pessimism about human progress and a loss of faith. Feeling that conventional poetic forms were inadequate to address these themes, he developed a radical approach, dispensing with a unifying narrative, mixing multiple voices and languages, switching between different verse structures, and juxtaposing literary references with vernacular speech and the mythical with observations of everyday life. The fractured language of “The Waste Land” articulates the shattered incoherence of the post-war world. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” Eliot wrote in the final stanza.

In a bold initiative, the gallery has delegated the curation of “Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’” to local volunteers from a mix of backgrounds. The range of exhibits they have chosen – from a Turner landscape to contemporary conceptual pieces, from theatre masks to a Hindu prayer bell – reflects the heterogeneous nature of the poem. As its title suggests, the exhibition offers no single interpretation of “The Waste Land”, but many possible journeys, guided by the personal and often very subjective responses of the volunteers. 


“The Shore” (1923) by Paul Nash

Paul Nash had witnessed the devastation of the first world war, as a soldier on the western front, and later as an official war artist. In 1921 he suffered a mental breakdown diagnosed as “war strain”, and, like Eliot, went to the Kent coast to recuperate. At Dymchurch his eye was drawn to the stark geometric shapes of the sea wall, which he painted as a dark blade cutting across the landscape. The painting reminded one volunteer of the beaches near where she grew up: “You can see such a long way without anything to interrupt your sight or thoughts. It feels like a good place for clearing the mind.”

“Portrait of Space” (1937, published 1941) by Lee Miller

Miller created this photograph at a time when she was living in Cairo and exploring new directions in her work. It was influenced by surrealist imagery, the ragged tear in the screen symbolising a rupture in the boundary between conscious and unconscious experience. But the hanging mirror reveals that the interior is empty. The emptiness Eliot described in “The Waste Land” was closer to home. “On Margate Sands/I can connect/Nothing with nothing” he wrote. The curators explain how Miller’s photograph relates to Eliot’s lines: “Because there’s nothing in the mirror and nothing outside it we have kind of got nothing connected to nothing, we’ve a picture of nothing within a picture of nothing.” 

“Night Windows” (1928) by Edward Hopper

Combining a mood of detached observation with a disconcerting element of voyeurism, “Night Windows” portrays with dispassionate realism the isolation and loneliness of modern city life. This was also a theme Eliot explored in “The Waste Land”. There is no evidence Hopper was directly influenced by the poem, but the scene in the painting could illustrate one section in which Eliot recounts an unsatisfactory sexual encounter between a typist and a clerk:

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
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.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

“The Quest” (1938) by Cecil Collins

One of the key mythical figures in “The Waste Land” is the Fisher King, a character taken from Arthurian legend. The Fisher King bore a wound and, as a consequence of his impotence, his lands had fallen into desolation. The quest he undertook was to seek his own healing, and also regeneration for his kingdom. The sailor-king in Collins’s painting is a forlorn figure, in a boat without oars or sail, adrift in a dark sea and menaced by mysterious icebergs. Collins painted it in 1938, when Europe was on the brink of another war.

“If Not, Not” (1975-6) by R.B. Kitaj

Kitaj created this painting shortly after the end of the Vietnam war. He said it was a direct response to “The Waste Land”, and it evokes the lines: “for you know only/A heap of broken images, where the sun beats/And the dead tree gives no shelter”. He depicts T.S. Eliot in the bottom left, wearing a hearing aid. The sinister building is the gatehouse to Auschwitz. The palm trees and blue water in the back ground suggest a tropical paradise, but the sprawling figures and objects in the foreground bring to mind the aftermath of an explosion. A collage of disparate dream-like elements, Kitaj’s painting mirrors the fragmentary form of the poem. 

Journeys with “The Waste Land” Turner Contemporary until May 7th