Journeys With The Waste Land review – mixing memory and desire in Margate
Source:The Guardian Author:Laura Cumming Date: 2018-02-07 Size:
TS Eliot sat down to write The Waste Land in a seaside shelter at Margate ……

TS Eliot sat down to write The Waste Land in a seaside shelter at Margate. The seats are still there, peeling red paint beneath a wrought iron pavilion, looking out at the icy grey waves. From here, Eliot watched children playing on the beach, but also the agonising exercises of soldiers severely injured in the first world war. “On Margate Sands,” he wrote, “I can connect/ Nothing with nothing.”

It is not the least virtue of this enthralling show that it puts you right on the spot. At Turner Contemporary you can see the shelter just across the beach; and you can imagine Eliot sitting there in November 1921, recovering from a breakdown, with this spectacle of innocence and anguish before him. The opening gallery gives potent period context. Käthe Kollwitz’s devastating woodcut Hunger shows a woman weeping because she can no longer feed her baby in the ruins of postwar Germany. Olive Mudie-Cooke’s dark lithograph of the British military cemetery in Etaples shows nothing but crosses as far as the eye can see. Yet Margate’s local paper that same year is advertising the annual Armistice celebrations, with dancing, tea and ices. Truly the times are out of joint.

Which is the atmosphere of Eliot’s polyphonic masterpiece, arguably the greatest poem of the 20th century. A trip to Margate helps set the scene – the sea, drowned figures, the fortune-teller Madame Sosostris, even the wave movements of certain sections – but the exhibition goes further. Its modest promise is to explore the resonances between the visual arts and Eliot’s epic work. There are direct references, specifically Patrick Heron’s shattered portrait of the poet, and Philip Guston’s colossal painting of Eliot as a muckle head laid out, so to speak, like a patient etherised upon a table. But the associations are principally with mood and form.

RB Kitaj’s If Not, Not, 1975-6: ‘the painter’s own “heap of broken images”’. Photograph: Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland

Eliot’s structure is unsurpassed in its staggering segues and jump cuts, its brilliant fusion of dialogue, lyric and vignette. Although several works in this show play with dreamy leaps, particularly the web-like watercolour visions of his friend and fellow poet David Jones, the most exact analogy is with RB Kitaj’s If Not, Not from the 1970s. This great sweep of high-chrome scenes of love and death surges up through a wasteland climaxing in paradise palms on the right and the gates of Auschwitz on the left. Civilisation stands, or falls, between the two. At the bottom is a forlorn portrait of Eliot wearing a hearing aid, cradled in the lap of a Gauguinesque girl. Here is the painter’s own “heap of broken images”, the fragments he is shoring, one feels, against his ruins.

This is one of Kitaj’s best works, and there are other modern masterpieces in this show. The full quartet of Cy Twombly’s great Four Seasons cycle rings with intensity, celebrating the changes in his Italian garden. Here is colour as pure music, abstract and resoundingly lyrical; but there are fragments of Virgil tremulously pencilled in the lush background – writing mutating into febrile image. The connection is unexpected; it isn’t usual to think of Twombly in terms of TS Eliot, his fellow American. But both are indeed epic visual poets.

Edward Hopper’s Night Windows puts you on eye level with a first-floor apartment, where a solitary stenographer has slipped out of her office clothes into something more comfortable. The analogy is with Eliot’s typist in her bedsit after work, awaiting the arrival of “the young man carbuncular”. After the hurried grapple, both return to their loneliness. “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.”

Off to the Pub (The Week-End), 1912 by Walter Sickert. Photograph: bridgemanimages.com

Thinking of the pub scene in Section II, where the barmaid has been ruined by backstreet pills, the curators present Paula Rego’s anguished Abortion sketches. Close by is Sickert’s frightening Off to the Pub, a man and woman in bleary yellow gaslight, which seems to presage the fateful pregnancy. The show is very strong on images of – and by – women, including a melancholy wreath fashioned out of artificial flowers and white evening gloves by Rozanne Hawksley, the fluttering fingers mimicking both leaves and imploring hands, a memorial for all the mothers’ sons who died in the trenches.

Instead of the usual catalogue, visitors are handed a short anthology of writings by the group of historians, artists, authors and local residents who have selected the 80 or so works in this show. This unusual curatorial democracy allows for some quite diverse emphases. There is an Aboriginal shield to remind you of Aboriginal “dreamtime” in which past, present and future coexist, as in the poem (somewhat); and a fragment – literally – of St Augustine’s Confessions, quoted by Eliot in what may have been a spiritual crisis.

Most extreme is an analysis by the Norwegian artist Vibeke Tandberg of the number of times each word occurs in The Waste Land. To my surprise, “red” only appears six times, and “dead” even less, though of course it all becomes bathetically predictable with definitive pronouns. Tandberg’s collaged tables are visually null, but each person’s overturned memories and assumptions are the point.

Ezra Pound, 1969 by Wyndham Lewis. Photograph: Tate Images

For one reader will remember lilacs, another rat’s alley, red rocks or the Smyrna merchant with his pocket full of currants. Once read, certain images remain for ever; but perhaps uppermost is the overwhelming tenor. And this is where the show is at its best, choosing works that catch that deathless insomniac mood. It’s there in Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of Ezra Pound, irritable and convalescent in his chair. It is in Cecil Collins’s eerie boatful of intellectuals riding to nowhere on dark seas, and it hovers in Tacita Dean’s unforgettable film Sound Mirrors, from 1999.

Dean’s camera homes in on gigantic concrete dishes used as primitive early warning systems on the Kent coast in the 1920s, bizarre and melancholy in the dying light. The soundtrack picks up what the dishes echo – late birds, water on shingle, the buzz of a byplane – as if war were once more imminent. Time past lingers on in the present.

• Journeys With The Waste Land is at Turner Contemporary, Margate, until 7 May. It transfers to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, 15 September-18 November

[Editor] 姜鑫

    Artintern