Worth a trip for the David Joneses alone: Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’ reviewed

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

To bleak, boarded-up Margate — and a salt-and-vinegar wind that leaves my face looking like Andy Warhol’s botched 1958 nose-peel — to see Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’ at Turner Contemporary. The exhibition has been organised by a group of local residents, who selected the exhibits, designed the layout, and wrote the exhibition texts. In ‘The Waste Land’, some of it written in the Nayland Rock seafront shelter, Eliot writes: ‘On Margate Sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing.’ The local research group have connected Eliot’s text with everything — some duds, some successes.

For example, in ‘The Fire Sermon’, a gossipy, gripping, ungrammatical female voice says: ‘It’s them pills I took, to bring it off’. So we have three Paula Rego pictures, ‘Abortion Sketches’ (1998). One in a hospital (the bed leg has a castor); another clearly illegal, showing a schoolgirl, with a tie and gathered green skirt pleats, squatting over a plastic bucket. I find Rego’s figures a touch Brobdingnagian and coarse — think of her over-emphatic portrait of Germaine Greer — but her candour is exemplary and unflinching. (‘The Policeman’s Daughter’ is an oblique depiction of fisting.) This abortion triptych is a virtuoso use of chalk — a revelation invisible in reproduction. You are going to have to go to Margate. All three pictures use chalk as if it were oils and achieve some incomparable textures. There is a plush velvet chair like a burgundy bulrush, parallel to the squatting girl, with a ragged gash in the upholstery corresponding to the vulva. The flesh of her thighs is exact. There is a check dress intricately captured in this very testing medium. A floral bedspread might be Degas. But the tour de force is a brown moulded plastic chair, which Rego breathtakingly sets before us in all its hideous banality.

I happen to think that the first world war is peripheral to Eliot’s poem — academics find it impossible to imagine that this cataclysm didn’t make its mark on all subsequent masterpieces — but the exhibition supplies several ‘relevant’ art works. We get Henry Moore’s underground drawings of punning ‘bandaged’ figures from the second world war. Coercive connection is compounded in, for example, ‘East Coker-Tse’ (1979). Philip Guston’s typical, wilfully ugly depiction of a profiled face, flayed like a biopsy, outdoing Dubuffet. The link with ‘The Waste Land’ is a stretch. In the end, the rationale, the research exercise, is less important than the pictures.

The first world war gives us, for example, David Jones’s ravishing ‘Frontispiece for In Parenthesis’, 1959–60, a work in pencil and watercolour. Again, this is a work depleted in reproduction. In person, as it were, Jones’s characteristic transparencies and vagrant perspectives become coherent and intelligible. The plethora of detail becomes compelling. The central figure is the semi-clad soldier, Private John Ball. His cock and balls are compact as a referee’s whistle, below a little burning bush. He is putting on his battledress blouson. Only his right arm is in the sleeve. His right calf is clothed but his foot is naked. His left foot has a shoe. (This combination of naked and shod feet is a motif in Jones’s oeuvre.) He has high ribs, above them an identity tag. There is a bruise on his left pelvis. His belly button is an enigmatic emoji.

Crowded around this figure is the war. In the right foreground there are five beautiful rats. (Jones was a beautiful painter of animals: his yak, his jaguar.) Above, there is a crescent moon and three stars (one five-pointed, two four-pointed). Below, there is a trenching spade. Everywhere, there are smashed trees and stylised barbed wire, simple four-pronged asterisks. Action is difficult for artists, so some inadvertent comedy occurs top left: a group of plank-carrying sappers look strangely camp, like a troupe of Ensa ballet dancers.

But it is a lovely thing, as is his lettering, blown up at the entrance to the exhibition, seen in perfect scale inside. Another triumph over reproduction. Jones learned the art of lettering from Eric Gill and brought to it the quality of tipsy but legible calligraphy. Nothing is quite in true. The letter ‘e’ takes three different forms, to reflect the epigraph from Petronius, in Latin and Greek, that prefaces ‘The Waste Land’. The lettering becomes deliciously cramped towards the bottom when Jones runs out of parchment as he quotes Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. The opening lines of ‘The Waste Land’ run alongside the side of the main quotation. What we have here is lettering ‘arranged’ like a hand-written letter, squeezed, inconsistent, casual and therefore actual.

Another delicious David Jones is his watercolour ‘Trystan ac Essyllt’ (1962). Two white dogs bay from a boat alongside the ship. The boat’s rim is braided with osiers. Its rudder is clearly visible through typically transparent water. Jones’s whimsical perspective can be seen in another ship to the right, where the black anchor is a third of the length of the ship. There is a lot to see in this busy picture: the ship’s cat, tail on high, its reflection dim on the wet deck. The topsail is being reefed by three naked sailors. The high wind has taken Iseult’s heaped hair like Bobby Charlton’s comb over. The lovers are holding the goblet with the love potion and their clothes are already déshabillé. Both have one naked foot. She is lifting her dress. Her dress sleeve discloses its red silk lining. His spurs are off. Five seagulls hover, the incarnation of appetite, and a symbolic figure emerges with a lantern from below decks…

It is worth the trip to Margate to see the Joneses. But there are other things well-worth seeing — Wyndham Lewis’s geometric portrait of Ezra Pound, whose pointed beard is segmented like a scorpion, with the sting in its tail. There is Cy Twombly’s ‘Quattro Stagioni’ (1993–5), a masterpiece of smashed pigment, drips and handwriting, that makes action painting look infantile. And don’t miss Fiona Banner’s ‘Breathing Bag’ (2016), a black plastic bag inscribed ‘Mistah Kurtz — He Not Dead’, which inflates and deflates high on the wall. A schoolgirl said: ‘That is well creepy.’ She was right.

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