Roundup: a Painter, a Photographer and a Satirist

–This quote appears in a recent collection of essays entitled Antisemitism, Islamophobia and the Politics of Definition edited by Prof G D Cohen of Rice University:

In June 1945, the British diplomat and man of letters Harold Nicolson admitted that he still disliked Jews but now “loathed” antisemitism even more. The conservative writer Evelyn Waugh expressed a similar thought in 1952: “I am afraid I must admit to a shade of anti-Jew feeling. Not anti-Semite.”

Waugh’s quote is cited from a secondary source rather than one of his own works. It is taken from a February 1952 letter to Nancy Mitford in which he commented on her remark that Waugh’s novel Helena had been favorably received by some French Jews.

–Michael Deacon comments in the Daily Telegraph about a current exhibit of Picasso’s work at the Brooklyn Museum. It is intended to remind the public “not just how talented he was, but how horrid.” This is co-curated by one Hannah Gadsby, described as a “non-binary feminist comedian…who once declared on stage that “I hate Picasso,” and denounced him as a “misogynist.” Deacon doesn’t think this is such a good idea and is heartened that most reviews have been absolutely scathing. He writes:

Yes, Picasso may well have been a male chauvanist pig. Just as Evelyn Waugh may have been a snob, Kingsley Amis an adulterer, George Orwell a homophobe and Roald Dahl a foul-tempered, fat-shaming, racist bully. But quite frankly so what? Castigating an artist over flaws in his character is not just drearily self-righteous. It’s also moronic–because it misses a crucial point about how art is created.

Deacon then considers the case of Philip Larkin and supposes that his poetry would not have been written as it was (or perhaps not at all) if he hadn’t been such a difficult person.

The same goes for all the other ‘problematic’ artists. Their art was a product of their characters. An earnestly egalitarian Evelyn Waugh could not have written such joyously malicious satire. A dotingly uxorious Kingsley Amis could not have written so hilariously about male (and female) misbehaviour. A woke Roald Dahl could not have written such deliciously subversive children’s stories. A feminist Picasso, meanwhile, might never have picked up a paint brush. Without his demonic compulsion to sleep with as many women as possible, he’d probably have trained as an accountant instead.

It’s gratifying to see Waugh in the company of so many other great artists, but one wonders how pleased he would be to find himself included with Picasso, an artist whose work he loathed and went out of his way to denigrate. For example, Waugh had a habit of closing his letters “DEATH TO PICASSO KING OF THE COUNTERHONS” (Letters, 218).

–A biography of satirist Tom Sharpe was recently published in Spain. It is written by Miquel Martin i Serra and published in both Spanish and Catalan. Its English title would be Fragments of Non-existence. Articles appearing in The Times and the Spanish paper El Pais explain that, after Sharpe retired to Spain, he was offered £1 million to write his autobiography. This was about 2001. According to The Times: “Sharpe, known for Porterhouse Blue and his Wilt series and deemed by his fans to be heir to the mantle of Evelyn Waugh and P G Wodehouse, almost accepted the £1 million offer…”, but feared the consequences given that his father was a dedicated Nazi and he wasn’t. Instead, he dictated his life story to his companion Monserrat Verdaguer and she typed it out. He was still going when he died in 2013. It was the task of Martin i Serra to turn it into a book.

The Times also reprints an earlier article by Patrick Maguire who includes Joe Orton with Waugh and Wodehouse as among Sharpe’s “satiristical” antecedents. Maguire noted that Sharpe’s

…cartoonish treatment of sex and the sexes, as well as the England of country piles and quadrangles that his best known works evoke, now feels distinctly dated… Nowadays Sharpe is likelier to be found on the shelves of charity shops than Waterstones. More fool us. Few writers before or since have had such a keen and merciless eye for establishment cant, the injustices of arbitrary authority, and the quiet dignity of those forced to endure both–be it from Guardian leader writers or boneheaded policemen. It all feels very seventies. But then again, so does 2023…

–A biography of photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer harks back to the interwar years immortalized by Waugh’s novels. This is Thoroughly Modern by Sarah Knights. The Daily Telegraph reviewer Catherine Ostler was only modestly impressed:

Ker-Seymer’s friendships with Burra, Chapell and others endure, although the dance genius Frederick Ashton becomes such a prima donna that they can’t ask him for supper in advance in case he gets the call from the Queen Mother. Ker-Seymer herself seems to have a soft spot for celebrity, befriending Patricia Highsmith and (strangely) the artist Beryl Cook, to whom she writes a fan-girl letter. There is even a change of tone as our principal tips into late middle-age: has outrageous, entrepreneurial Bar become a cosy cruise-taker?

What are we left with? Ker-Seymer’s pictures — of, say, Nancy Cunard or Jean Cocteau — are in contrast to what Knights calls the “dramatically embellished goddesses of Madame Yevonde”: hers are “honest and unfussy”, “straight” portraits. Gratifyingly, too, we see her at last getting the credit when some of her work has been misattributed to Cecil Beaton. Otherwise, this book is a picturesque portrayal of a world that sounds as thoroughly maniacal as it was modern..

The review in The Times by Roger Lewis reports:

Key-Semer’s claim on modern attention, according to Knights, is that she was a first class social photographer who was “exceptionally skillful in manipulating light, bringing a sculptural quality to her subjects”. They included Oswald Mosley, Nancy Cunard, Elizabeth Bowen and Evelyn Waugh. Indeed, it is the generation of Waugh’s Bright Young Things whom Bar represented — the Jazz Age silliness, which followed naturally from the horrors of the First World War in the same way that the Goons were a release valve after the Second World War.

I was unable to find an example of a Ker-Seymer photo portraying Waugh. There is a video of a 1986 Channel 4 interview of Ker-Seymer posted on Vimeo that is worth watching. In it she explains that she had to give up photography during the war and afterwards managed to make a decent living from establishing a chain of laundromats. The book is available in the UK but does not show a publication date in the US at this point.

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