WASTELANDS: A POETIC LEGACY
10 August to 3 October 2005
Australian Collection Focus Room
Art Gallery of New South Wales
The Australian Collection Focus Room series, located in the modern Australian galleries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, attempts to bring to light the Collection's rich diversity of Australian art. Each two or three months it features some aspect rarely seen, and in a study context not normally possible in the permanent displays. Occasionally, it will feature popular icons illuminated by comparative material from various sources.
Wastelands: A Poetic Legacy touches on an aspect of the influence of T S Eliot's poetry on artists in Australia. Its starting point is Eliot's evocation of modern society as a 'wasteland' in need of spiritual renewal, which became translated from the early 1940s onwards in terms of the way these artists viewed the urban landscape.
Reading his poetry voraciously, titling works after his poems, artists became absorbed in Eliot's aesthetic through images addressing the aftermath of war, the ruins of abandoned rural townships during economic downturns, the discarded junk of consumer society or the industrial landscapes of modern cities in the transitional zone between old and new. Collectively, this influence was connected to an idea of recovery, and new notions of beauty and the picturesque in the twentieth century.
Jeffrey Smart and Colin Lanceley especially were inspired by Eliot's major pieces The Wasteland, written on the cusp of the Surrealist revolution in 1922 and Four Quartets, completed during the beginning of the Second World War. The poet's radically innovative approach to imagery and form demonstrated how art could address the complexity and dissonance of the modern world. The use of found objects or relics from the past as both subjects for, and material with which to make art, of course had earlier sources, in the 'readymades' of Duchamp and Dada. But for Lanceley in particular, Eliot's collagist approach to form evoked the fragmented human experience that is the essential sensibility of the late twentieth and twenty-first century city.
However, a number of works in this display have been selected for what is perceived simply as Eliot's legacy, whether or not the artists have been familiar with his writings. They share recognition of the evocative potential of certain urban themes in western cities of today where the material 'wasteland' is now fast disappearing, filled by office and apartment buildings and streets 'upgraded' to pedestrian shopping plazas. But a fascination persists for dereliction and the beauty that can be perceived amidst ruin.