Friday, November 04, 2011

Edward Burra: 20th century man

The Snack Bar, 1930: Have you ever seen a more phallic-looking sandwich? asked George Melly.

I'm always in two minds when an obscure, favourite artist of mine finally gets the recognition they deserve. On the one hand I'm glad for them getting wider exposure, and on the other it's like a secret that only I know about has been exposed.

The painter Edward Burra (1905-1976), though popular during his lifetime, seemed to have been forgotten for a while, as if written out of the history of British 20th century art. Perhaps he is too quirky, too difficult to pigeon hole. He was also disabled and a bit camp (maybe gay) with an acerbic wit (and a reluctant interviewee). Worst of all, his preferred medium was watercolour rather than oil. It's all these supposed weaknesses that are his strengths. I can think of few other artists whose work so captured the 20th century's ups and downs as much as Burra, from the gay Paris of the twenties, to jazz clubs and black culture of Harlem in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil war in the 30s and then the Second World War, right up to England in the 1970s, with its new motorways destroying his beloved countryside.

But a reappraisal of the man has been coming for a couple of years now. Jane Stevenson's excellent biography of him, Twentieth-Century Eye, was published in 2007. In June this year, his picture Zoot Suits sold for over £2m, a record for a Burra. BBC4 recently had an hour long documentary about the artist, I Never Tell Anybody Anything: The Life and Art of Edward Burra. And finally, a major exhibition of his work , accompanied by a new monograph, has recently opened.

It's possible Edward Burra would have hated Chichester. After all, it's not so different to Rye, the town he grew up in and loathed, once describing it as 'ducky little Tinkerbell towne'. Still, it's Chichester that houses the first major survey of his work in twenty five years, so it can't be all that bad.

The wonderful Pallant House Gallery, tucked away in a side street, has grouped Burra's work into different-themed rooms, but whether it's a street scene, war scene, stage set, landscape or still life of flowers, all Burra's paintings have at least a hint of menace and mystery to them. Perhaps as a rebellion against his middle class upbringing, Burra was always fascinated by low-life, seediness and tawdry glamour, and his earliest paintings in his 20s depict street and dock scenes with sailors, wide boys and prostitutes. Watercolour on paper was his unusual choice of medium, used so densely saturated that some pictures look like they've been painted with oils. The surfaces are silky smooth. His colours are so vibrant and striking; Burra's blues are brilliant, his reds, ravishing.

Though he suffered ill health all his life, travel was one of Burra's many passions. His journeys to France and the USA inform his paintings of the 20s and 30s, depicting street and bar scenes, cabarets and nightclubs with exquisite detail and acute observation. But his pictures were in danger of becoming merely picturesque until he spent some time in Spain and witnessed the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Then came the Second World War. Suddenly, Burra's pictures were full of war and death, soldiers wearing Venetian masks and, slightly later, mysterious, surreal bird men wearing robes.

Approaching old age in the 1960s and 70s, Burra turned more to landscape and still life. Unlike much English countryside painting, though, Burra's depicted it unflinchingly, with pylons, motorways and traffic, yet still infused with a sense of mystery and spirituality.

As a chronicler of the century's ups and downs, he has been compared to a modern day Hogarth; as a painter of low-life, bars, nightclubs and the grotesque, Toulouse-Lautrec, Dix and Grosz; depicting the horrors of war, Goya; but Burra's distinct style and his alternatively seedy, sinister, surreal, sensual and spiritual subject matter make him a unique figure in the history of British art.

If you're reading this in London, a cheap day return by train to Chichester can be booked online in advance for around £10. The Pallant House Gallery also has a fine collection of 20th century British art and a handful of European masters including Picasso, Modigliani and Leger, all housed in a beautiful building. There is a striking extension which was completed in 2006. The shop is pretty good, with lots of art books at reduced prices. Best of all, unlike most big exhibitions in London galleries, the Pallant was almost empty (though we did go midweek), allowing for leisurely viewing pleasure. We spent hours in there! Chichester has other stuff to recommend it, such as nearly a dozen charity shops and a fine cathedral, which has a Marc Chagall window, a Graham Sutherland painting and two magnificent 12th century Roman sculptures. Go on, treat yourself to a day out.

1 comment :

Jude said...

Quite agree, Barnaby, an enlightening
exhibition for me as I didn't know much of his work. Most of his paintings seem to have some threat, either clearly visible or implied, even the flowers are slightly menacing.