Art exhibitions on T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf kick off in England

MARGATE (England) • At the eastern and western extremes of England's coast this spring, art galleries are celebrating the life and work of two giants of British modernism.

But the artists at the centre of these exhibitions are not painters or sculptors - they are writers T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

Featuring visual art from the 1920s to the present day, the shows use their literary starting points to explore the relationship between the self and nature, as well as the dramatic social upheavals of the authors' times.

The town of Margate sits at the outermost lip of the estuary where the River Thames meets the North Sea. Here, in 1921, Eliot, who had come to the town on doctor's orders after a nervous collapse, looked out onto the English Channel as he worked on The Waste Land.

Drawing together allusions high and low, from the Fire Sermon of the Buddha and the Confessions of St Augustine to gossip from Eliot's maid, the fragmentary poem reads as a clamour of voices, linked together by imagery of water and desolation.

Journeys With The Waste Land at Margate's Turner Contemporary gallery brings together art that engages with the poem's themes, as well as works inspired by it.

"There's something very interesting about looking at one poem as opposed to a career," said curator Mike Tooby. He worked with local experts and volunteers to create a show that echoes the polyphonic structure of The Waste Land and explores its roots here in a specific time of post-war crisis.

The result is an idiosyncratic but evocative exhibition in which a nocturnal painting by Edward Hopper hangs beside a bittersweet video work by John Smith in which the artist recites a segment of the poem in the toilets of a London pub.

Eight hours away by train, Tate St Ives is perched on Cornwall's toe as it kicks into the Atlantic.

Woolf took vacations with her family at their holiday home, Talland House, in St Ives until she was 13 and returned to the town in adulthood.

"She came back here a lot: It's the place where she locates her aspirations to be a writer," explained Ms Laura Smith, curator of Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings.

This substantial show of female artists from the last 100 years is divided into themes related to Woolf's writing: landscape, the domestic sphere, public and private identity.

Paintings by Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell, are shown alongside works by artists that came after her, many recently re-discovered by curators such as Smith who are keen to redress art history's masculine bias.

Among them are Claude Cahun's surrealist performances for the camera, Ithell Colquhoun's fleshy and sensual depictions of nature, and audacious landscapes and portraits by painter Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck.

Woolf's To The Lighthouse, published in 1927, is the exhibition's most significant literary reference. While the novel was set on a Scottish island, Woolf drew inspiration for it from Talland House and the surrounding coast.

The two shows coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a conflict that is an essential context for both To The Lighthouse, which portrays its devastating, transformative impact on a family, and The Waste Land. NYTIMES

• Journeys With The Waste Land is on until May 7; Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings is on until April 29.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2018, with the headline 'Art exhibitions on T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf kick off in England'. Subscribe