My sister, inspired by my love of art history, decided to write her midterm for her humanities class at University of Chicago on comparing and contrasting a Picasso with a poem by T.S. Eliot. She does this very successfully, and with her permission, I am sharing it with the world.
People in Pieces
One may first connect Pablo Picasso’s “The Red Armchair” to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” by recognizing the distinct similarities in form of the two works; while “The Red Armchair” is a fragmented image, “The Waste Land” is a fragmented literary piece—a poem composed of disconnected stories. However, while this connection is important, it is the differing outcomes of the fragmentation that makes comparing these works of art meaningful. Whereas the fragments of the woman in Picasso’s “The Red Armchair” create a greater whole of a three-dimensional, lively being, the fragments of the people in Eliot’s “The Waste Land” demonstrate the decay of human beings.
In both “The Red Armchair” and “The Waste Land” the juxtaposition of opposite elements emphasizes the fragmentation of the work. However, while Picasso’s method of doing this through opposite colors and lines demonstrates the three-dimensional feminine shape of the woman the piece depicts, Eliot’s method of combining the contrasting ideas of machinery and humanity conveys humans to be emotionally-flat and nearly robotic. The juxtaposition of pairs of opposite colors emphasizes the shapes that fragment “The Red Armchair” by how the colors stand out against each other when in the same vicinity. Green and red shapes contrast against each other in the foreground of the painting while purple and yellow shapes make up the background. The differing color schemes of the foreground and the background make the woman sitting in the armchair stand out against the background, conveying her importance.
Moreover, the curved shapes that form the woman in “The Red Armchair” contrast with the straight-edged shapes of the armchair and walls, emphasizing the woman’s human existence in contrast to the nonliving things around her. Picasso uses curved fragments to form the woman and highlight her femininity, conveying the three-dimensional curvy figure of her greater whole—the woman the painting depicts. The contrast between the curved shapes that make up the woman’s form and the straight-edged shapes that compose the walls further differentiate between the living and nonliving. Because, while perfectly straight lines exist among the man-made, they do not exist as a part of the living. The straight lines that outline the walls and compose the stripes of the chair recognize these as nonliving things and suggest that the woman, composed solely of curved shapes in the painting, is alive.
And while contrasting fragments highlight the femininity and liveliness of the woman in “The Red Armchair,” the composition of contrasting parts in “The Wasteland” demonstrates the diminished femininity of women and the decay of the human condition. Using the metaphor of machinery for people, Eliot combines two contrasting ideas into one being, demonstrating how machinery is fragmenting the living. Eliot describes, “At the violet hour…/…when the human engine waits/like a taxi throbbing waiting” (12, lines 215-17). Eliot conveys the apathy people have for life by comparing humans to emotionless machines. Through his metaphor for the human as a taxi, Eliot suggests that people wait, empty of emotion and direction, and then go, automatically, in a direction not of their choosing and about which they feel indifferent.
Likewise, Eliot represents the typist as a metaphor for the taxi, conveying her diminished femininity. Eliot demonstrates the connection between the taxi and the typist through the repetition of the phrase “at the violet hour” before the introduction of each and through the instances in the typist’s story (12, line 215, 13, line 220). The typist waits for the “expected guest” to arrive, like a taxi awaiting a customer (13, line 230). When the said guest does arrive, he forces himself upon the typist, directing her like a taxi customer does a taxi (13, line 237-42). The typist reacts like a machine, unemotional and indifferent: “Hardly aware of her departed lover;/Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:/‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over” (13, lines 250-52). The two defining qualities that differentiate humans from machinery, the ability to think and to feel emotion, are distorted in the case of the typist. By describing the typist’s thought as “half-formed,” a technical and exact way of characterizing an abstract concept, Eliot conveys her thoughts to be more like the automatic output of a machine than qualities unique to the human condition. Additionally, the typist’s indifference toward her lover and his actions toward her further emphasizes her similarities to a machine; while her interaction with him is far more intimate than that between a taxi and its customer, she feels just as apathetic about the experience. Through the metaphor of the typist as a taxi, Eliot demonstrates her diminished femininity, emphasizing how she is unable to enjoy the experience of being female and instead is just a machine for a man to do with what he wants.
Whereas the typist’s part human and part mechanical characteristics convey her diminished freedom, especially in terms of men, the woman’s fragmented face in “The Red Armchair” conveys her freedom and how she takes advantage of it with men. The placard next to the painting at the Art Institute of Chicago states that “The Red Armchair” was the first in a “series of paintings [that Picasso painted] of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter …Perhaps acknowledging the double life they were leading, Picasso invented a new motif—a face encompassing both frontal and profile views” (Picasso, The Red Armchair). The fact that the woman in the painting, Marie-Thérèse Walter, was Picasso’s lover demonstrates that her fragmented face in the artwork hints at the freedom she exercises with her love affair. Her divided face displays two perspectives with differing expressions, perhaps conveying Walter’s multifaceted personality and life due to her ongoing affair with a married man. The fragmented face in “The Red Armchair” demonstrates the freedom that Walter exercises and the complexity her life exhibits, contrasting with that of the automatic, mechanical characters in “The Waste Land.”
Additionally, while the fragmented background of “The Red Armchair” leads the viewer’s eye to the focal point of the painting—the woman’s face—demonstrating her importance, the fragmented stories in “The Waste Land” result in a lack of focus on a certain character or characters, conveying people’s lack of importance. In “The Red Armchair” a strip of color runs horizontally on the wall in the background, leading right up to the woman’s face on both sides. Furthermore, the wall is divided vertically right above the woman’s head so that the thin black line which outlines where the purple side of the wall ends and the yellow side begins leads right to the center of her head. The fragmentation of the wall causes the woman’s face to have straight lines leading to it in many directions, making her face the focal point of the painting. In this way, the fragmentation emphasizes the importance of the woman as a person, leading viewers to see the woman’s face first; like how, in real life, the face of a person is what others are drawn to see first.
In “The Waste Land” however, fragmentation has the opposite effect, resulting in a lack of focus on a certain character or characters, demonstrating the lack of importance of people and bringing focus to the only things continual and consistent in the poem: time and death. The fact that the fragmented stories emphasize not certain people but instead the general theme of the ending of people, demonstrates a cruel message about humanity: humans and society are decaying. In section one of “The Waste Land,” in the stanza about fortuneteller Madame Sosostris, Eliot writes, “Fear death by water./I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring./Thank you” (7, lines 55-57). This seems to be a conversation between the fortuneteller and the narrator where Madame Sosostris tells the narrator’s fortune. But after the narrator’s “Thank you” there is no mention of the fortuneteller or clear explanation of the fortune in the rest of the poem. After the abrupt finish of that stanza, a new stanza begins, “Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many./…/And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (7, lines 60-65). There is no connection between the characters of these two consecutive stanzas (it is not clear if the narrator is the same person) and so no importance is placed on the characters, demonstrating people’s lack of importance. The lack of clear connection between the characters and occurrences in “The Waste Land” lead the reader to find connection and an overlying story in the ideas and phrases that repeat throughout the piece.
Through the repeating idea of crowds of people getting nowhere in these stanzas, Eliot conveys the significance of the decay of humanity and the insignificance of human individuality. While the people and instances in these stanzas are not mentioned or referred to again in the poem, Eliot does repeat certain phrases of these stanzas—“death by water” and “Unreal City”—phrases referencing the death of humans and decay of their creations (7, lines 55, 60; 12, line 20; 16). These phrases connect section one of the poem with the sections that follow; Eliot titles section four “Death By Water” and mentions, “Unreal City/Under the brown fog of a winter noon” in section three (12, line 20). The repetition of these phrases demonstrates that as time passes, death and decay continues. The fragmentation of “The Waste Land” through its discontinuous storyline emphasizes death and decay over human individuality in the way that phrases and instances of these themes, instead of characters and their stories, give continuity to the poem.
The differing effects of fragmentation in Picasso’s “The Red Armchair” and Eliot’s “The Waste Land” demonstrate how fragments can enliven humanity and enrich life, conveying new perspectives and possibly new combinations; and in other circumstances, how they can emphasize devastation, indicating the missing pieces and destruction of the whole that once existed. Moreover, the disjointedness of these two works highlights that fragments are more than just the result when something is broken; they are part of a process with a past, present, and future. By looking at the past wholes the fragments were a part of and the present forms they exist in, one can speculate where and what they will be in the future.
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: W. W. Norton
& Company, 2001.
Picasso, Pablo. The Red Armchair. 1931. Oil and Ripolin on panel. Chicago, United States.