5 March 1938: Evelyn Waugh on the word "Fascist"

From our correspondence.

St James’ Club, Piccadilly, W1
5 March 1938

SIR,—I am moved to write to you on a subject that has long been in my mind, by an anecdote I have just heard.

A friend of mine met someone who—I am sure, both you and he himself would readily admit—represents the highest strata of “Left Wing” culture. The conversation turned on the “May-fair” jewel robbers and the Socialist remarked that they exhibited “typical Fascist mentality.” This seems to me an abuse of vocabulary so mischievous and so common, that it is worth discussing.

There was a time in the early twenties when the word “Bolshie” was current, it was used indiscriminately of refractory school children, employees who asked for a rise in wages, impertinent domestic servants, those who advocated an extension of the rights of property to the poor, and anything or anyone of whom the speaker disapproved. The only result was to impede reasonable discussion and clear thought.

I believe we are in danger of a similar, stultifying use of the word “Fascist.” There was recently a petition sent to English writers (by a committee few, if any of whom, were English professional writers), asking them to subscribe themselves, categorically, as supporters of the Republican Party in Spain, or as “Fascists.” When rioters are imprisoned it is described as a “Fascist sentence”; the Means Test is Fascist; colonisation is Fascist; military discipline is Fascist; patriotism is Fascist; Catholicism is Fascist; Buchmanism is Fascist; the ancient Japanese cult of their Emperor is Fascist; the Galla tribes’ ancient detestation of theirs is Fascist; fox-hunting is Fascist … Is it too late to call for order?

It is constantly said by those who observed the growth of Nazism, Fascism, and other dictatorial systems (not, perhaps, excluding USSR) that they were engendered and nourished solely by Communism. I do not know how true that is, but I am inclined to believe it when I observe the pitiable stampede of the “Left Wing Intellectuals” in our own country. Only once was there anything like a Fascist movement in England; that was in 1926 when the middle class took over the public services; it now does not exist at all except as a form of anti-Semitism in the slums. Those of us who can afford to think without proclaiming ourselves “intellectuals,” do not want or expect a Fascist regime. But there is a highly nervous and highly vocal party who are busy creating a bogy; if they persist in throwing the epithet about it may begin to stick. They may one day find that there is a Fascist party which they have provoked. They will, of course, be the chief losers, but it is because I believe we shall all lose by such a development that I am addressing this through your columns.

Evelyn Waugh

[Mr Waugh is very enigmatic about the author of the remark to which he objects, but a similar comment was made to us by a friend who based his opinion not upon political bias but upon a conversation he had had with two of the guilty men. Moreover, anyone who, like Mr Waugh, has studied the growth of Fascism and Nazism, knows that among the most active champions of these movements were a number of young men with tastes which a repugnance or disability for work prevented them from gratifying. These, too, did not stop short of either brutal assaults or common dishonesty in their efforts to improve their position, and they can now be seen alike in Italy and in Germany enjoying the agreeable sinecures which their violence has earned. We do not suggest that the mentality of the Mayfair gangsters is that of all Fascists, but it is a historical fact that Fascism attracted men with just such a mentality and just such an economic position. Finally it will not have escaped Mr Waugh's attention that at least one of the guilty men had been active in selling arms to General Franco. We agree, however, that to call fox-hunting “Fascist” is a gross abuse of language.—Ed. New Statesman and Nation]

An anti-fascist protester outside the Cambridge Union. Photograph: Getty Images.

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SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle