Evelyn Waugh on Picasso

In a letter to friend Robin Campbell in 1945, Waugh wrote:

“…Picasso and his kind are attempting something new in the sense of something different in kind. Titian might have thought Frith intolerably common but he would have recognized that he was practicing the same art as himself. He could not think so of Picasso. Chaucer, Henry James and, very humbly, myself are practicing the same art. Miss [Gertrude] Stein is not. She is outside the world-order in which words have a precise meaning and sentences a logical structure. She is aesthetically in the same position as, theologically, a mortal-sinner who has put himself outside the world of God’s mercy.

“Picasso fails to be an artist in two essentials. First, in communication. He is hit-or-miss. Nothing is more ludicrous than the posturing of a Svengali who fails to put his Trilby under. The only criticisms valid for him are: ‘Ooh, doesn’t it make you feel funny inside’ or ‘the fellow’s a charlatan’. You do not hear people say: ‘I think the hand is coarsely painted, but what an exquisite angel’s head in the left hand corner. And what a lovely landscape through the window’.

“He fails, it seems, in the content. Here I must judge at second-hand because he fails to put me under, but his addicts tell me his message is one of Chaos and Despair. This is not the message of art. If it were, any issue of the Daily Mirror would be a supreme aesthetic achievement. You cannot excuse him by saying it is a message of the age and at the same time deny that the age is decadent. Goya, incidentally, was an exact contemporary of Goethe.

“It is entirely historical to believe that cultures decline and expire. I believe Western culture to be in rapid decay and that Picasso and Stein are glaring symptoms. You have no authority for saying so jauntily that ‘there are a few million years yet’. It is one of the determining conditions of our existence that it may end at any moment, individually or generally, but were it true, your assumption would have no bearing on the probability of a new ice-age.

Incidentally again, I believe the sin [which] the West is dying of to be Sloth not Wrath as is popularly assumed. It requires constant effort to keep within the world order and our contemporaries are too lazy to make the effort.”

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