A masterpiece can be said to be a work with the capacity to outlast its time and speak to cultures vastly different from its own; to transcend its time and place and inspire new works by artists in succeeding generations.
T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is such a masterpiece.
Artists Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman, along with composer Christopher Theofanidis and theologian Jeremy Begbie, have begun a touring exhibition and festival of theology and the arts which reveals this very thing: Eliot’s masterpiece is still able to transcend its era and social location, generating fresh response and inspiring young artists of today. Fujimura and Herman have each completed four large works in response to the imagery, emotion, and allusion evoked by Four Quartets, and have collaborated with Christopher Theofanidis in his commissioned musical score entitled “At the Still Point.” Dr. Begbie has initiated and is actively organizing a scholarly and theological colloquium at Duke University that underscores Eliot’s relevance for this new generation.
To that end, we are asking for significant partnership with donors who will join us in providing the best possible future venues, publications, publicity, and public colloquia that will reveal how Eliot’s faith and literary vision engaged his own generation, how this vision can speak to our own time, and how it can bear rich fruit among future generations of poets, composers, and artists.
Four Quartets and Faith: Why Eliot, why paintings, why now?
When first published, Eliot’s poem received a lukewarm reception by colleagues and literary critics who compared it to his masterpiece, The Wasteland, and found it lacking. Friends of Eliot’s, such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, criticized the poem for its overt allusion to Christian faith and the traditions of sacred poetry, like that of Dante and Julian of Norwich, and the obvious way the poet attempted to blend modernist literary tropes with traditional religion. These critics thought Christianity was a thing of the past and irretrievable by contemporary artists and thinkers. Yet now, more than three-quarters of a century later, the poem is considered a major milestone in English literature.
Four Quartets is relevant to our own cultural moment because of its powerful testimony to the grace and vision of the Gospel message in a multicultural milieu. In Eliot’s vision all hinges upon the “still point” where the human experience of time evokes wonder, fear and longing for continuance and redemption, and where Christ’s presence is the pivotal point for the entire Creation. Herman and Fujimura have made a substantive response in painting, not so much illustrating Eliot’s work or making direct allusion to passages in the poem as attempting to find, in Eliot’s words, the “objective correlative,” between the poet’s themes and their own works. Christopher Theofanidis has produced a compelling score that evokes the brooding and brilliant light of Eliot’s poem. In effect, the painters and composer are collaborating in intentional dialogue with the poem, revealing the staying power of its genius and its self-declared reliance on the Christian literary and theological tradition.