Oed’ und leer das Meer.
(Desolate and empty the sea.)
This quote from Tristan und Isolde (1859) appears near the start of T.S. Eliot’s seminal poem The Waste Land (1922), prefacing his hopeless vision of the sea that will recur throughout. For Eliot, writing in a beachside shelter in Margate, in the wake of the First World War and a personal breakdown, the great expanse of ocean that confronted him was devoid of renewal, of substance, of meaning. Death by drowning haunts the work, and water pervades as stagnant liquid, cloaked in brown fog that wants to imbibe and obscure. Later in the poem, he wrote: ‘On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.’
Nearly 100 years after The Waste Land’s publication, an exhibition along the bay at Turner Contemporary aims to chart both Margate’s influence on the poem and the poem’s influence on visual art and culture. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the south English coast, an exhibition inspired by Virginia Woolf’s writings is taking place at Tate St Ives. Both writers were almost exact contemporaries of one another, friends throughout their lives, and both suffered from what would be termed mental health conditions now, but were labelled ‘nervous breakdowns’ and ‘hysteria’ (in Woolf’s case) then. Both sought to emancipate themselves and modernist writing from the strict frameworks of tradition, turning away from straightforward narrative towards a fragmentary approach that mirrored the total rupture with history and reality wrought by the First World War. Throughout both writers’ work, the sea reappears as a metaphorical device for, variously, death, stasis, landscape, memory and time. For Woolf also, the dynamic vastness represented by the sea was in stark contrast to the rigid, gendered space of the room.
‘For women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force,’ Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own (1929). For Woolf’s women, the four walls contained hard-won autonomy and freedom: the freedom to write, or paint, or fuck, like Eliot’s typist in her bedsit with ‘the young man carbuncular’. In both Eliot and Woolf, the reader becomes an unwitting voyeur, peering into the room from outside – a feeling well captured at Turner Contemporary in Edward Hopper’s Night Windows (1928) or Paula Rego’s Abortion Sketches (1998), both of which depict the daily inevitability of being a woman in the 20th century – albeit one with relative independence – waiting for things to be done to you.
In St Ives, Lili Dujourie’s Passion de l’été pour l’hiver (1981) is a 15-minute self-portrait of the artist alone, moving and dancing about in her room, framing herself against the window. It seems emancipatory until you realize she’s performing for the camera, for us, the viewer, opening the room up to parade the self as artists so often have. Nearby, Geta Brătescu draws lines around and onto her hands in her 1977 film Hands (For the Eye, the Hand of My Body Draws My Portrait), defining the outline of her body, grasping and crumpling objects from her studio. Brătescu’s identity as an artist is inextricably tied to the room of her studio; the objects within are imbued with as much personal resonance as the many still lifes on show by Laura Knight or Vanessa Bell.
Once previously fixed as a kind of domestic prison, Woolf’s room for women was always translucent: a space to freely create, to be, with a window to the world beyond. Gwen John’s A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (1907–1909) depicts a sparse but comfortable room, the window open onto Paris. John once wrote to Rodin (who paid the rent), ‘It seems to me that I am not myself except in my room.’ Mrs Ramsay, the matriarch in To the Lighthouse (1927), comes together as a self when alone in her room knitting: ‘All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself.’
The selves and characters that populate Woolf and Eliot’s works are invariably complex, fractured and evasive of being pinned down through writing. The Waste Land is almost impossibly fragmentary at times, flitting between voices and classical references to destabilize the reader. Yet time itself reoccurs throughout the poem as a kind of inescapable pendulum – ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’ repeatedly interrupts the conversation between two women in the pub, an impending countdown to closure. The poem begins lamenting the unstoppable tide of the seasons, signalling a renewal that is too painful for Eliot to face. The dead frequent the verses and the exhibition, in R.B. Kitaj’s skirmish of colours and horrors in If Not, Not (1975–1976), Rozanne Hawksley’s wreathed white gloves in Pale Armistice (1987), and Philip Guston’s deathbed self-portrait East Coker-Tse (1979).
The bell tolling death also features in Mrs Dalloway (1925), where Big Ben’s ‘leaden circles’ of time continuously remind the shell-shocked soldier Septimus Smith of the danger of living. Ultimately, driven to despair by splintered visions, Smith kills himself, flinging himself out of a window whilst the clock strikes. Woolf precisely choreographs her characters, having them perform a particular experience of time in an attempt to more fully represent them. Where Eliot’s notion of time tends towards death, Woolf’s tends towards life – a certain kind of linear consciousness. We often get several characters’ inner voices at once, bending time to construct what Woolf called a ‘harlequinade’ that echoes Eliot’s fragmentation.
Rich patterned fabrics by Vanessa Bell and Enid Marx on display at St Ives allude to multiplicity and repetition. Bryony Gillard’s A cap like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body (2018) collapses structure into what the artist terms ‘jellyfish experience’ – an amorphous, autonomous experience outside of rationalism or time. A large section of the exhibition privileges a kind of improvised state of creativity in response to the stream-of-consciousness symbolism Woolf is famous for. Issy Wood’s mythic chimerical scenes fold historical narrative in on itself; Ethel Annie Weir’s ‘Spirit drawings’ (1950–51) alongside Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit album (1865–85) demonstrate a kind of poetics at play in Woolf – a shattering of self-consciousness that might have appeared hysterical at the time.
Woolf is both inside and outside of time: working furiously against its laws of chronology, yet bound to memory. In her diary from 1923, Woolf links her early memories at St Ives with the desire to write: ‘It is a general sense of the poetry of existence that overcomes me. Often it is connected with the sea and St Ives. […] I have the sense of the flight of time; and this shores up my emotions.’ The sea was always present in the background, through the window of Woolf’s room, making her characters rise and fall in a lyrical rhythm. Mrs Dalloway thinks to herself about the ‘ebb and flow of things’, a cyclical force of nature keeping her afloat and alive.
In The Waste Land, the ebb and flow of Eliot’s memory is agony; despite the poem’s unsettling and disjointedness, time inevitably surges forward, heralding spring’s turning away from the past. Time for Eliot is as inherently violent as war, and the swelling current of his sea picks ‘bones in whispers’, creates whirlpools, drowns sailors. Benedict Drew and Nicholas Brooks’s video installation Sump (2016) speaks to this unknowable gulf – an otherworldly liquid deterioration that oozes with both violence and ennui. The sea for both writers represented something other that could be woven into their texts as a device to roll characters in and out of consciousness, making ruins of some, whilst others remained buoyant.
The two exhibitions are fundamentally different in their authoring: the Tate show curated by Laura Smith of entirely female artists, taking up Woolf’s call to ‘think back through our mothers’ and positioning her within a lineage of creative women both historical and contemporary; the Turner Contemporary show the product of three years of research by a local group set up to study The Waste Land. The latter proposes new collective methods of curating and the result is as multiple and fragmentary as Eliot’s poem. Literary exhibitions can tend towards the simply illustrative – merely representing scenes from the works, or the author’s context they were writing out of – and both shows fall into this trap at times. But both also succeed in their loose weaving together of voices and themes in a way that echoes the writing.
Eliot and Woolf grappled with a sense of self in their writing that could adequately draw their pieces together – in her diary, Woolf wrote that ‘nothing makes a whole unless I am writing’, while for Eliot at the end of The Waste Land, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins,’ suggests a way forward through his condition. In echoes of their writing, these exhibitions represent the self as unknowable, unrepresentable, cresting and plummeting in waves through time, like the sea outside.
‘Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by her Writings’ runs at Tate St Ives until 29 April. ‘Journeys With The Waste Land’ runst at Turner Contemporary, Margate, until 7 May.
Main image: John Stezaker, Mask CCV, 2016, collage, 25 x 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Approach, London; photograph: FXP photography