By now, you’ve probably all seen the documentary and read about the Edward Burra exhibition which opened at Pallant House in October. Various things have conspired against me and yesterday I realised how close I had come to missing this show. So, off I went on a very Mini Adventure. If I can’t take the car via the Strand and Waterloo Bridge then I tend to navigate via The Stoop (Harlequins’ home ground) and this was the way I zoomed yesterday.
This is the first major show for over 25 years of Burra’s works and he is finally getting a smidgeon of the recognition he deserves. As well as his work being included in Tate Britain’s watercolour show, Zoot Suits fetched a record £1.8 million at Sotheby’s sale of the Evill/Frost Collection. But, the art world elite have always been aware of his work. It’s to everyone else that he has remained a mystery.
Edward Burra, Zoot Suits, 1948. Image via www.voltcafe.com.
The Edward Burra exhibition provides an opportunity to study Burra’s extraordinary creativity. Burra was remarkable; suffering from severe arthritis and rheumatism, he was barely able to move his claw-like hands at the end of his life and grasped a paintbrush with his swollen fist. Serious anaemia also left him debilitated and subject to collapse with no energy but, notwithstanding his constant ill health, he never wanted to be defined by this as it was something that he abhorred. Burra was fortunate to be born to a wealthy family and to have humour and an indomitable spirit, qualities that allowed him to rise above his many illnesses. For Burra, art was his drug and his escape; the only time that he didn’t feel any pain was when he was painting.
Edward Burra, The Snack Bar, 1930. Image via www.tate.org.uk.
Burra lived in Rye, Sussex but he travelled far and wide drawing inspiration from diverse sources, creating complex artworks often redolent of the time in which he lived. His sharp eye combined with a love and knowledge of art history that is often evident in his works. He was fascinated by modern urban life – the cheap glamour of tarts and prostitutes who congregated in the Mediterranean seaports and the boulevards of Montparnasse and by the black culture he saw in Harlem where he was intoxicated by the violent colour, noise and heat.
Edward Burra, Harlem, 1934. Image via www.tate.org.uk.
Apart from his collages, almost all of Burra’s incredible works are executed in watercolour and he was one of the most skilled exponents of the medium. Initially, it’s hard to believe that they are not painted in tempera as the handling of the medium is so tight and the works lack the fluidity and tonal quality one would normally associate with watercolour. It’s probable that he worked so heavily with this medium as it allowed him to paint at a table rather than being forced to stand at an easel.
Edward Burra, The Straw Man, 1963. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
Burra is an eccentric artist who resists categorisation. The characters in his paintings jump out at you from their frames. His compositions are often playful, provocative and powerful – nowhere else will you find such dynamism and life. The Danse Macabre works look at Burra’s experimentation with collage; his strange composite beings are almost Surrealist and further heighten the confusion as to what movement Burra should be ‘shoved’ into.
Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons, 1934. Image via www.tate.org.uk.
The Pallant House exhibition is ordered by theme – High Art/Low Culture, Danse Macabre, A Sense of Unease, The Sussex Landscape, Late Landscapes and Painting The Stage – which works quite well because it is hung in relatively small rooms off the main gallery space. It’s a difficult exhibition space to work and although a thematic display is successful sometimes the rooms feel too isolated and self-contained.
Most of the works here are on loan from private collections and are rarely seen. The exhibition includes some very unusual Burra works, particularly the Sussex landscapes with which I wasn’t really familiar; these are rare as the majority of Burra’s work did not deal with Britain. The room of Late Landscapes includes Burra’s painting materials and colour tests from the ’70s. Amidst these is an envelope that had become a testing page and a shopping list; in his distinctive writing Burra has scrawled ‘anchovies, paste, sardines, coffee, BRD, 4 batterys, savlon’. This is a really lovely human detail. In fact, as I write there is an envelope next to me that I have commandeered as a to-do list.
Edward Burra, Landscape near Rye, 1934-5. Image via www.pallant.org.uk.
Burra was able to create an incredible atmosphere of suspense with heightened drama. Although his subject altered radically over the years, there is always a sense that something isn’t quite right as he imbues even happy scenes with a sinister quality. His works are humorous but disquieting, both comic but tragic; we are always left with questions and never quite know what Burra wanted us to think. But that is the point. After all, he famously said that he never ‘never tell[s] anybody anything’ so he wanted us to work it out for ourselves – or maybe not.
I was pleased to see how busy the exhibition was. It is Burra’s seedy depictions of social scenes that grab us, opening windows into the underbelly of a world we have not visited. John Rothenstein suggested that they may ‘constitute the most grand and the most vivid interpretation of the least reputable seams of society by any painter of our time’. Although I’d have liked to see a few more of his idiosyncratic bustling urban scenes, the exhibition is great to allow an overview of the Burra that few people know.
Edward Burra, Three Sailors at a Bar, 1930. Image via www.hh-h.com.
I’m not sure you’d leave Chichester loving Burra if you don’t already but if you have the Burra bug, like me, then it’s definitely worth rushing down to this. I hope that before too long there will be another opportunity to talk more about Burra but, right now with only two days left, I urge you to jump on the train or head over via The Stoop and see his work for yourself.
Edward Burra is at Pallant House Gallery until 19th February 2012. Also, in room four is a small David Dawson exhibition which includes his wonderfully intimate photos of Freud – some of which are at the NPG – and his own lesser known paintings. David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud is on until 20th May 2012, www.pallant.org.uk.