A Comparison of The Waste Land and Pablo Picasso's Guernica

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A Comparison of The Waste Land and Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"


The similarities are striking. This is probably due, in no small part, to the inspiration for both works. Picasso and Eliot shared a common inspiration for their masterpieces the atrocities of war. Guernica was a response by Picasso to the German Luftwaffe's bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. During this 1937 attack hundreds of civilians were killed.

T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is similar to Guernica in this way. It was written as a commentary on the state of the world after WWII. Printed in 1922 it depicts more vividly the changes of the world after the war, rather than a specific moment during the war, as Picasso does.

Aside from the conditions, which lead to the creation of these works, they share a number of other common threads. Symbolism aside these works are very similar on the surface. Both are a collection of seemingly disjointed images, which when put together by the reader or observer serve up a strong social message. That messages being that the wars and conflicts of the times have twisted the world. This is reinforced by the contorted and misshapen images in both works.


There are a number of these images in the works. Many of Picasso's are fairly evident the burning man in the right corner for example or the severed head on the bottom. These show the devastation of the world, as we know it. Eliot has recurring images not unlike these in The Waste Land. Eliot continually refers to the unnatural lack of water in the wasteland or the meaningless broken sex in the society of his day.


However neither of these artists would be as highly considered, as they are, if these were the only images in their works. Indeed, it is the ambiguity of these images that makes them so great. Picasso overlaid in Guernica the images of Harlequins. The largest is hidden behind the surface imagery and is crying a diamond tear for the victims of the bombing.


Another is the interesting set of images if found if the observer flips the painting over. Here in the left half of the painting there are two images, one of a puppet and an observer kneeling to view the show.

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This is interesting because Picasso loved puppetry and before the turn of the century he helped produce shows in Barcelona. So Picasso is empathizing with the victims and commenting on the absurdity of the bombing.


Subtly is also a forte of T.S. Eliot. An example is the Hyacinth girl who becomes a recurring image in the poem. This is a girl who loses her virginity in the Hyacinth garden and instead of being happy she views it as a negative. It shows the way sex has a twisted significance in the waste land. Eliot also makes a play on his society when he talks about the fiery hared girl in "A Game Of Chess". The woman in this scene has on her wall a painting that refers to the scene of a rape. It is the rape of Philomel by her sister's husband Tereus, when all was said and done they were turned into birds by the gods and these birds become recurring images in the poem. The painting points out the irony in society everything they value is really bad.

Another allusion common to both Guernica and The Waste Land is that to Wagner's Opera Parsifal. The broken sword in Guernica is a reference to the breaking of Parsifal's sword during a battle while questing for the grail. Eliot uses Parsifal, more specifically the choir of children from Parsifal, in contrast to the drunken singing of soldiers. In both cases it highlights the death of purity in the world.


Death, which is the greatest of the images, in these works is used for many reasons. For Eliot it is the death of spirituality and social morals. Picasso worries more about the death of reason and compassion in the world. Guernica has hidden images that demonstrate this point. The most prominent being the bull goring the horse of propaganda, this relates to the goring of the horse during a bullfight.


This act also has strong sexual overtones. Death, in Eliot's work was used more as a tool. Eliot tried to get across the idea that the symbolic death of society could be overcome by looking to the past. This is why he makes a number of references to Christ, Osiris, and Sybil. Each of these figures escaped death, which is what we must strive for in our wasteland. To leave it behind we must over come the restraints of our society.

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