Monday, 13 February 2012

Edward Burra (1905-76)

The Edward Burra exhibition at Chichester's fine Pallant House Gallery is in its last week. It's a good place to view and think about this marvellously eccentric English artist. Burra was based in the nearby town of Ryde - he called it an "overblown gifte shoppe" - and spent his whole creative life trying to escape the deadening clutch of English gentility. Despite a lifetime of ill health, he travelled to Harlem and Marseilles, and painted sailors, prostitutes, lowlife and streetlife, with a manic glee in this teeming, vibrant subject matter. Burra absorbed the graphic language of Hogarth, Beckmann, Grosz and Dix but turned their acerbic vision of humanity into something much warmer: his chaotic letters are alive with excitement at the life he observed in the bars and dives he visited, and this affection comes through in the colour, the jazzy angles and attention to detail. He takes the tubular. His friend the American poet Conrad Aiken reckoned Burra to be the best observer of Harlem life, a tribute all the more impressive when you learn that Burra remembered everything he saw and painted it afterwards. He loved films, and we can see this in his staging of scenes, his use of close-up and long shot. Today he might have made animated movies, I think. His love of the theatrical is illustrated by his stage designs, seductive mixtures of realism and fantasy.

The Spanish Civil War and Second World War inspired some extraordinary visionary pieces, images of dancing skeletons, conquistadors mingling with tanks, a malevolent blue figure blitzing London. Goya is there, and Dalí, and Burra briefly exhibited with the English Surrealists. But he was always too idiosyncratic to belong to any group. Throughout the work there is a Dickensian transformation of humans into objects and the other way around, a living, often violent energy coursing through all phenomena. The later landscapes are neither rural idyll nor a mythic chamber. Burra's nature is a hard place, there to be worked, trees bending beneath the Sussex wind and stumpy clouds. Figures become transparent - he said to a friend that as you get older you see through people - and there is a concern, too, with man's violation of the natural world: one extraordinary late painting has a shrine over a tin mine, where intrusive man seems to be meeting some unpleasant fate, his noisy yellow robotic machines waiting outside. The video int he show shows Burra refusing to answer any questions about his art or influences: 'I can't remember' he says shiftily; he can;t see the point of questions or bringing an artist's personality into it. 'why not just look at the pictures?' One of his contemporaries says that his generation were more frivolous than the serious young of today, and never talked about art: it would have been regarded as vulgar and common to do so. But even to a common vulgarian like me, Burra's art is a constant wonder. He's up there with the great English visionaries like Blake and Palmer. Remarkably, the medium he used most often was watercolour, usually associated with delicate tonal nuance but here employed - often on a large scale, several sheets joined together - for visceral dramatic effect. Another act of defiance against prim English respectability perhaps.

Image from the Tate Gallery. This picture is on display in the Pallant House show. I particualrly liked this review by Andrew Graham-Dixon in the Telegraph.