T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is one of the most celebrated poems of the twentieth century and this fantastic new show at Turner Contemporary brings together a wondrous collection of works that explores the poem and its influence on visual arts over the past century.
In what must have felt like a risky move, the curatorial team at the Gallery created a Waste Land Research Group, comprised of members of the public (from their twenties to their seventies), who together examined the language and themes of the poem to create an exhibition that reflected their various responses.
The result could have been anything. It could have been a bit of a mess, the resulting display hard to fathom. But, instead, it’s a fantastic show. So many names, so many terrific pieces. And, more than this, the artworks selected are thought-provoking. This is a tremendous and hugely enjoyable exhibition.
The list of artists included is quite a roll call of big hitters. From Twombly to Man Ray, from Turner to Edward Hopper, from Leonora Carrington to Philip Guston, from Helen Marten to Paula Rego, from Henry Moore to Paul Nash, from Lee Miller to R.B. Kitaj…
And what connects them all? Eliot’s seminal modernist poem.
Please don’t feel that you have to know much, if anything, about Eliot’s poem to attend this show, or to get much from it. I barely know it myself. But smart use of wall text and clever grouping of the works allows the exhibition both to have cohesion and flow, and also introduces the themes that are being explored in each section. Not only does this give an anchor, a way in, but this also allows us to connect to the artworks and consider how the Research Group found a connection between these and the poem.
By way of background, Eliot was in a fragile state in 1921, both physically and mentally. He came to Margate for respite and rest yet found himself inspired. In the few weeks he spent at the seaside town, he worked intensely on The Waste Land whilst sitting on the Margate sands. The finished masterpiece was published the following year.
And it is a long poem; over 400 lines. But its text covers so much – from the devastation of war, gender politics, death and judgment. Even myth making and journeying. It is often a confusing poem, playing with time and voice, that can make it obscure. Yet that variety is the opportunity that makes this art exhibition shine.
Taking the famous line “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” leads us to the selection of Man Ray’s photograph of dust breeding; the description of a painful home abortion is the obvious link to three paintings from Paula Rego of women having gone through just that. The ruin of war leads us to Paul Nash, obviously. But it also links in the photo of the Le Carillion bar from Mark Power – the scene of the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.
It is this circle of life that is also the origin for the inclusion of the glorious Quattro Stagioni from Cy Twombly – four vast canvases capturing the energy and essence of the seasons. And I particularly liked the inclusion of a piece by Helen Marten. On what basis is this here? “This work doesn’t refer to the poem,” said one of the members of the Research Group who pushed for its inclusion, “but to me it creates a similar impression. It’s made up of lots of different elements, some which I recognise and others which I stumble over.”
Perfect. Whisper it quietly, but maybe the general public should curate more art shows.
Turner Contemporary, Margate, to May 7, 2018.
1 ‘Portrait of Space, Al Bulwayeb, near Siwa, Egypt 1937’by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2017. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk
2 The Shore, 1923 (oil on canvas), Nash, Paul (1889-1946) / Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. / Bridgeman Images
3 Hopper, Edward (1882-1967): Night Windows. (1928). New York, 10 x 12 (1) Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Oil on canvas, 29 x 34” (73,7x 86,4cm). Gift of John Hay Whitney. 248.1940© 2018. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence