The Herbert Art Gallery is celebrating TS Eliot’s Waste Land with a collection of art influenced by the poem. Artists include Peter Blake, Elizabeth Frank and Paul Nash. The exhibition continues into Coventry’s modern Cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence.
The stand out works are, of course, the David Jones. One work is a lettering of the poem’s prematter which repeats Petronius’ Satyricon.
The subtext of the exhibition, seems to be, that Coventry was a Waste Land and no longer is. Like a phoenix it grew from the ashes. Eliot’s took from anthropology the idea of of the Waste Land as a land apart, the abode of circular vegetation gods- who died and revived replicating nature’s rhythms (like Osiris and the Nile flood). In this Waste Land, something uncanny has happened to stop this natural flow, whether it was war or modern modes of life:
The exhibition has a photo of Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne Eliot, taken by Ottoline Morrel. Eliot had a difficult relationship with her, compounded by her mental illnesses. The exhibition lists her support of Eliot whilst he wrote the poem, including her suggestion of a line:
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
It is left unsaid, that the couple remained childless.
Next to this photo, is a portrait of Ezra Pound painted by Wyndham Lewis (who also painted Eliot). Pound did a look of work editing the poem, pruning it and emphasising the disconnections between sections. The facsimile edition, gives some idea of Pound’s contribution.
Yet what isn’t said here is that Pound was a facist, who supported Mussolini throughout the war. He contributed to the Facist war effort through writing radio broadcasts, that were also a great medium for his anti-Semitism. His portraitist Wyndham Lewis supported Hitler at one point (he recanted before the war started). Eliot himself, an arch conservative, wrote anti-Semitism lines in the twenties. He was criticised for this during his lifetime.
This issue is at the centre of any approach to the moderns: their medievalism and their modernism. Eliot was the most notorious for this mindset. This is perhaps, where any in-depth investigation of The Waste Land will start these days. Nevertheless, a fine show. Do visit.