With contributions by Andrew Lambirth and Jane Stevenson
Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2011
Hardback, 176 pp. ISBN 978-1848220904. £35.00
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière – Lyon 2
“It is always difficult to give a straightforward reading of any ‘meaning’ in Burra’s picture”, writes Simon Martin . Prematurely bent by rheumatisms, rather explicitly gay in his sexual interests, and an adept of a most curvilinear style, there was indeed almost nothing “straight” about Edward Burra (1905-1976), one of those British artists who seem to escape all categorisations. A victim of chronic arthritis from his early childhood (he was mainly home-educated), Burra painted almost exclusively watercolours on paper because he could not stand in front of an easel for prolonged periods; he practised his art sitting at a table. His sex life remains hazy, but he had a lifelong friendship with the dancer William Chappell, he invented for himself a number of female aliases (“Lady Aimée Bureaux”, “Tattie”, “Gladys Dilly”, “Marguerite” or “Madame Mata-Hari”…) and many of his paintings evince a gay sensibility, depicting homosocial gatherings where sailors dance cheek to cheek. As for his classification in the history of twentieth-century art, Burra was at one moment close to the Surrealists: in 1936, “his work was included in both the International Surrealist Exhibition in London and Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York” . He experimented on collage with his friend Paul Nash, and one of his exercises in that genre, The Eruption of Venus (1930), which shows the influence of Max Ernst’s bird-headed figures, “was reproduced in a Surrealist special of the French avant-garde magazine Cahiers d’Art in 1938” .
Apart from that brief flirt with Surrealism, Burra remains very much an idiosyncratic painter, somewhat like Stanley Spencer, who belongs to modernity but perhaps not such as it is usually defined: “His oblique relationship with contemporary art is partly to be explained by his oblique relationship with contemporary painters” . Sometimes packed with dozens of figures, Burra’s paintings are mainly figurative, but with an intensity of colour, a flattened perspective and a mass of decorative detail which remove his art from the mere representation of reality. His visual wit makes him a latter-day Hogarth, and his modern conversation pieces hark back to the work of his predecessor, which he sometimes parodies, as in Marriage à la Mode (1928-29), a “revision” of The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox (1729), suffused with sexual imagery.
Edward Burra never let himself be restricted by the accepted notions of what constituted “bad taste”. He was deeply interested in seedy places and “dangerous-looking men in cafés” , and he travelled abroad to escape the Victorian earnestness of his middle-class upbringing. In Paris, he was enraptured by the crowds and prostitutes in Pigalle: “The people are glorious. Such tarts all crumbling and all sexes and colours”, he wrote in 1931. Burra’s art shows true instances of racial fraternity, and he particularly enjoyed the nightlife in Harlem, out of a genuine love of black music, far from any idea of “primitivism”. His interest in music also found an outlet in his work for ballet, opera and cinema. Through what he called “the world of upper-class lesbians”, he came to be commissioned to design “brilliant and bizarre” sets and costumes for several shows at the Savoy, Sadler’s Wells or the Princes Theatre. In 1947, Covent Garden had a new production of Bizet’s Carmen designed by Burra. The artist being associated with the Mediterranean because of his watercolours from Southern France, the Royal Opera House again solicited him for Richard Strauss’s ballet Don Juan and for a Don Quixote with music by Robert Gerhard, choreographed by Ninette de Valois. Burra was also asked to work on one of the sets of the film A Piece of Cake (1948), in which the heroine is abducted to “Doomsday Hall”, the Dr. Caligari-like house of an evil-doing magician.
Burra always had a strong sense of the macabre, with “an unusual ability to imbue inanimate objects with unease” . His specific kind of gallows humour led him to people some of his works with monsters and skeletons, e.g. the fascinating John Deth (Homage to Conrad Aiken), painted in 1931. He loved horror movies and was a great reader of fantasy, and was especially fond of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. “I never was one to look down on literary painters”, he declared towards the end of his life , being able to recognise the possible link between the Pre-Raphaelites and Salvador Dali: he had no problem with subject-painting and was initially part of the Return to order of the 1920s, close to George Grosz’s New Objectivity. In the 1930s and ’40s, Burra could not be a War Artist because of his poor physical health, but he did paint the war; the Spanish Civil War was the inspiration for several works, and the intense physicality of those scenes was admired by Wyndham Lewis:
I share Burra’s emotions regarding war; when I see the purple bottoms of his military ruffians in athletic action against other stout though fiendish fellows, I recognize a brother … No show of Burra’s is complete for me without the bulging husky leathery shapes I associate with him .
In his last decades, Burra took to painting still-lives and landscapes, but in a vein of his own. He never drew anything on the spot, he memorised what he saw in order to recreate it later in his studio. He did not produce descriptive accounts but rather evocations of the spirit of a landscape, and those works are peopled with all sorts of ghosts and angels, transparent beings, hovering above the earth. “Burra’s work was a precursor of the high-low culture continuum of art groups such as the Independent Group in the 1950s as well as the later Pop artists” . While one can find echoes of his garish urban scenes of the 1920s in the strongly sexualised paintings of the German-American artist Richard Lindner, his landscapes often come very close to the work of Michael Andrews or even Peter Doig.
In spite of Edward Burra’s relevance for today’s artists, no exhibition had been devoted to his work since the 1973 retrospective organised by the Tate, or the 1985 show at the Hayward Gallery. The present volume was written to accompany an exhibition curated by Simon Martin and hosted from October 2011 to February 2012 by Pallant House Gallery in Chichester (which owns The Straw Man, a semi-industrial landscape painted in 1963), with the support of the Estate of Edward Burra and Lefevre Fine Art. The book includes a Chronology, a detailed list of the productions in which Burra was involved as a stage-designer, a Select list of solo and group exhibitions, a list of the books illustrated by Burra (which include Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in 1948 and ‘The Book of Judith’ in the Old Testament in 1968), a list of public collections featuring Burra’s work, a Select Bibliography and an Index. It is high time the public’s knowledge of Burra was no longer limited to his Silver Dollar Bar (1953), a masterpiece which was used as a cover for the Penguin paperback of Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer.
Cercles © 2012
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