Edward Burra, at Pallant House.
In January 1934, a young English painter called Edward Burra sailed for New York. As so often in his life, he was looking for an escape. Trapped inside a prematurely aged body, crippled by a combination of congenitally inherited rheumatoid arthritis and pernicious anaemia, Burra lived through his senses. Travel was his way of spicing a painful life with new, vivid, unfamiliar experiences. America’s most vibrant city thrilled him. On arrival, he wrote breathlessly to his close friend Barabara Ker-Seymer that "New York would drive you into a fit ... there are about 10 Woolworths of all sorts also 40 cinemas & Apollo burlesk featuring Paris in Harlem which I am plotting to go to... The food is delish 40000000 tons of hot dogs and hamburgers must be consumed in N.Y. daily." (sic)
Burra painted, just as he wrote, in exuberant defiance of his own frailty. Too weak to push oil paint into the weft of a canvas, he had to work in watercolour or gouache, holding his brush in the eccentric, clawlike grip of his swollen right fist. Working from memory, on large sheets of paper, in an edgily abbreviated figurative style, he set down vivid impressions of Harlem life: cool dudes in zoot suits posing on the sidewalk; the maracca-brandishing chorus line of a black burlesque show; hectically cavorting dancers studied, with a touch of envy, from his table in the corner of Harlem’s leading jazz club, the Savoy Ballroom. There are few signs of the Great Depression in Burra’s New York pictures. During the earlier part of his career, he accentuated the positive.
"Edward Burra", at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, is the first museum retrospective of the artist’s work for a quarter of a century. It distils him to some 70 works, from cartoonish juvenilia created in the early 1920s to a series of shape-shifting landscapes painted shortly before his death in 1976. After decades of unjust neglect, Burra’s reputation has recently soared. Early last year, Tate Britain’s survey of the British watercolour tradition implicitly ranked him alongside some of his far better known contemporaries such as Paul Nash and Henry Moore. Months later, one of Burra’s Harlem pictures, Zoot Suits, sold for £1.8 million. The exhibition at Pallant House sets the seal on this sudden resurgence in his critical fortunes, establishing him as one of the more fascinatingly singular and darkly imaginative British artists of the twentieth century.
Burra’s most highly prized work has until now been that of his earlier career, when he was at his most determinedly peripatetic, travelling to Paris and the South of France, as well as Spain, America and Mexico. After each trip, he would return to his boyhood home in the quiet Sussex town of Rye ("Tinkerbell Town," he called it with affectionate mock-contempt), where he also kept a studio. Most of his earlier pictures were created there – wry, lightly caricatural portrayals of the diverse milieus to which the artist felt drawn. Les Folies de Belleville, of 1928, is Burra’s characteristically camp celebration of the joys of the Parisian music hall: a troupe of scantily clad dancers flaunt their sexuality with such grim, impersonal intensity, they might almost be a chorus line of robots. An air of noontime ennui hangs over Dockside Cafe, Marseilles, of 1929, as one matelot flirts with a pair of predatory barmaids while another puffs at his cigarette with an expression of faintly menacing boredom. In Mae West, of 1934-5, the feather-crowned filmstar floats across acres of cheap patterned cinema carpet. A screen goddess, gracing her own premiere, she wears a voluminous white diamante ballgown while flashing the pearly smile of Hollywood’s number one vamp.
"He loved naughtiness," the jazz musician George Melly once observed of Burra. "He enjoyed depravity and bathed it in a glamorous eccentric light." The remark is true, up to a point. A great shift occurred in the artist’s work during the second half of the 1930s. It was then that Burra’s quirkily decadent world turned irrevocably sinister. Two pictures mark the change: Beelzebub, of 1937-8, in which a church is looted under the balefully approving gaze of a grinning, salmon-pink fiend; and War in the Sun, of 1938, showing a modern tank, manned by manneristic soldiers in Conquistador costumes, as it advances upon the stageset architecture of a ravaged city. Both were inspired by Burra’s direct experience of the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. They mark a sea-change in his art, which became yet more troubled and melancholic after the outbreak of the Second World War. Asked to explain his sudden transformation, he simply remarked "What can a satirist do, after Auschwitz?" Burra found more than enough answers to his own rhetorical question. He painted soldiers resembling mechanomorphs, absorbed into the machinery of war; melancholy street scenes haunted by sad-faced phantoms; and an explosive bouquet of magnificently odd flower paintings, images of luxuriant blooms tense with anxiety and pulsing with morbid energy.
Burra did not go gently into old age. He kept mostly to England and focussed on pastoral themes, creating a radiant series of eerily atmospheric landscapes inspired by the Peak District and the Yorkshire Moors, as well as his native Sussex. They are his last pictures, as compelling and mysterious as any that he painted. They are exhilaratingly expansive images, full of air, space and light. Yet they also tease out subtle correspondences between the rhythms of natural form and the shapes of the human body. Were they Burra’s way of meditating on his own, imminent reabsorption into nature, as he stood at the threshold of death? The artist himself refused to say. "I never tell anybody anything," he said. "So they just make it up."
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