Tag Archives: Sotheby’s

Warning: this exhibition is gloomy, dull and depressing

29 Jul

Edvard Munch was unfortunate to say the least.  He suffered from depression, alcoholism, agoraphobia and misogyny but I personally have a feeling that he was one of those people who perversely enjoy the afflictions that life in their paths.  There can be no doubt that he had a tragic life but this exhibition has a tragic start.  For me, his works don’t explore his torment in an artistic way.  Rather, his gloom and misery just emanate from the canvases and rub off on us.  The show (with walls painted in depressing Tate grey) doesn’t grab us immediately.

Munch, Red Virginia Creeper, 1898-1900. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Aesthetically, there’s an improvement from room two where both the works and the exhibition become slightly more vibrant.  This room looks at Munch’s fascination with repetition as many versions of his works exist.  In particular there are several versions of all his main compositions, some separated by as much as three decades.  Munch once said that ‘a great idea never dies’ and, rather than copy the works exactly, he created variants reinterpreting his initial ideas.  But, often the works weren’t good enough or the ideas strong enough to merit these constant re-workings.  Instead we are presented with one shoddily painted work after another obsessed with ideas of death and suffering.

Munch’s repetition. Own photograph.

The exhibition does make interesting light of his relationship with photography and film and his photography is used to guide us through the different sections of his artistic life.  As with the camera, Munch became addicted to cinematography (more than two thirds of the works here are photographs plus there are two films).  This understanding and experience helped refine his painterly skills and technique.  Entitled The Modern Eye, the exhibition aims to show that Munch was a modern thinker with modern concerns.  Fair enough, but he is certainly not a modernist which is one of the theses presented here.

Munch, Self Portrait Naked in the Garden at Asgardstrand, 1903. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Munch’s oeuvre is very varied with limited progression and because of this he doesn’t always come off well as an artist. The absence of The Scream does force us to concentrate a bit more on the rest of his output.  I’m not convinced this is a good thing though.  Although multiple copies of it exist, it would have been practically impossible for Tate to organise a loan for the exhibition.  The Scream recently sold at Sotheby’s New York for £74 million after an incredible 12 minutes of telephone bidding.  It is one of the most famous paintings in art history although not that many people could name any of his other works.  To be fair, I’m not sure I could have done.  The anguish, however, of the screaming figure is omnipresent.

Munch’s The Scream sells at Sotheby’s.  Image via http://fineart.about.com

It is a bland show.  Maybe I shouldn’t have visited on a grey and rainy day or maybe it comes down, once again, to lighting levels that are slightly too low.  The catalogue, however, is brilliant and I’d recommend buying this rather than traipsing over to Tate Modern.  The first essay begins not with discussion of his origins and his birth but with the date of his death – death after all pervades everything that Munch did.  His sister died of consumption when she was only 15 and death and sickness haunt the majority of his works.  Six versions exist of The Sick Child – through this reinvestigation Munch was perhaps able to experience a sense of cathartic release.

Munch, The Sick Child, 1907. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition begins and ends with his self-portraits.  Those in the final room are perhaps the most powerful works in the whole exhibition, following Munch’s self-destruction and the terrifying course of his own dark despair.  Munch had always had a poorly sighted left eye and, in 1930, he suffered a haemorrhage in his right eye.  Rather than consider this a reason to stop painting, he focussed (!) on painting the progression of the haemorrhage; the blind spot in his vision meant that he was able to dedicate himself completely to ill health and the subjectivity of his vision as his sight became further confused and images blurred.

Visitors to the Munch exhibition. Own photograph.

In 2005, the Royal Academy mounted a show of Munch’s self-portraits but few are held in public collections in the UK.  Tate doesn’t seek to engage with Munch’s key works, nor is this a retrospective exhibition.  Instead, it has been designed to illustrate the curators’ arguments and theses.  This is not an exhibition that is meant to be palatable to the public but to art historians with a strong interest in Munch – a narrow window indeed when you consider the gloomy outpourings of this depressive and one that I think is far too limited.  This isn’t normally a problem we encounter with Tate.  Such an institution should be seeking to engage more actively with all its public in a more inclusive way.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is at Tate Modern until 14th October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

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Li Tianbing at Stephen Friedman and a handful of other Mayfair Mentions

15 Apr

Last week I was charged with the responsibility of showing someone a few Mayfair Galleries.   This should have been an easy task really considering the amount of time I spend in and out of these places but the sheer volume of galleries in Mayfair did present me with a challenge.  However, with set start and finish times, a time restriction and a list of that evening’s private views, the journey mapped itself out with relative ease.

It was a luxury to spend the afternoon, strolling through these galleries and seeing the enormous diversity of brilliant art that such a small section of London has to offer.   We began at Alon Zakaim’s new space on Dover Street, currently displaying a mixed presentation of 19th century works.   Next, we dipped in and out of galleries on Cork Street including their original space as well as Flowers and Alan Cristea.

Marc Quinn, Sunspot (In the Night Garden), 2011 at Alon Zakaim, Cork Street.  Image via www.alonzakaim.com

Hooking round into Old Burlington Street, we visited Stephen Friedman.  To be honest, having missed the PV, I had forgotten what was currently on show here.  As soon as we walked in we were both struck by the power of the canvases – eight large paintings by Li Tianbing in his debut UK exhibition.  Friedman is known for having an eye for the crème de la crème and Tianbing is rightly regarded as one of the best Chinese-born artists of his generation.

Li Tianbing, Bullet holes, 2012.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

These semi-biographical works recall the artist’s upbringing under China’s one-child rule.  Introduced in 1979, the policy restricted married couples in urban areas to having only one child.  Families still find the emotional consequences of this legislation too difficult to discuss – Tianbing’s own parents, despite having seen his works, find them too painful to talk about.  It is thought that, since its inception, the one-child policy has prevented 400 million births as well as causing a serious increase in female infanticide, forced abortions and under-reporting of births.  Second children are often registered as someone else’s or not registered at all, creating a whole group of people who do not officially exist.  Those who are discovered are denied promotions, suffer benefit and pay cuts, are fined and are often made homeless.

Li Tianbing at Stephen Friedman. Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

When Tianbing moved to Paris at the age of 22 he took with him an album containing five slightly blurred black and white photographs – the sole memento of his childhood.  Even this in itself is rare and the images were taken on a camera that his father had borrowed from the People’s Army propaganda unit.  These images still have a profound effect on him, transporting him back to the lonely isolation of his youth.  The multi-layered paintings are instantly comparable to the monochrome detail of these photos and show an imagined upbringing with fictitious brothers and playmates – the ones he was never allowed.  Despite the multitude of figures often seen in these works, the children always seem alone, staring wide-eyed from the canvases, lost in their own thoughts.

In addition to his photographs, as a child, Tianbing only had one toy.  Don’t Touch my Dog shows a group of boys holding their toy dogs, a reminder that Chinese children hardly ever owned playthings.  The main figure holds his toy above his head and the others all look towards him.  The fragmentary nature of the work, enhanced by the use of a mixed palette, highlights the nature of these broken and adapted memories.

Li Tianbing, Don’t Touch my Dog, 2011.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

A mixture of abstraction and portraiture, Tianbing’s works use his own strong visual language which draws on Western contemporary art and traditional Chinese techniques.  Visual motifs recur repetitively such as his haunting use of staining which represents the corrosive power of political dictatorship.  There is no doubt that these pieces are striking.

The one-child system meant that Tianbing had an extremely lonely existence whilst growing up and, for him, art was the lifeline he grasped to survive this reality, taking refuge in his imagination and inventing his own life.  As well as showing the playmates he longed for, his works also show the hidden children of the regime.

Being able to spend time as a family is something that many Chinese never knew.  Tianbing, who now lives in Paris, already has a son and his second child is on the way.  This is something that we take for granted and don’t even consider but Tianbing feels as if he has won a prize.  His works are very moving and thought-provoking; they make us look at the cosy nature of our own existence and acknowledge the trials that Tianbing and others like him had to endure growing up under the oppressive Chinese administration.

Li Tianbing, Reverse Walk, 2012.  Image courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong and via www.stephenfriedman.com

Now that Tianbing is less lost and has found what he missed during his youth, his works have become more grounded with a glimmer of happiness.   Although the memory of the one-child policy will always be omnipresent, he has moved on to look at other issues affecting the Chinese economy.  Tianbing’s works have a powerful hold on viewers and, because they have room to breathe and are not over-crowded in the gallery, the children’s intense gazes do not let you go.

We wandered up Bond Street, past Sotheby’s who were preparing for the Munch viewing, to Opera Gallery where, for us, the highlight of their mixed contemporary show was two photographs by Gérard Rancinan.

Gérard Rancinan, On the Way Back from Disneyland, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.operagallery.com

For the first of our private views we headed back the way we’d come and turned onto Bruton Street.  Trinity Contemporary is tucked away upstairs and would be easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there.  We chickened out of going in the very creaky old lift and climbed up the stairs to their surprisingly light and neat space on the third floor to see a solo exhibition of drawings by Emma McNally.  Atoms Insects Mountains Stars is inspired by the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and these works show the artist’s extensive working with graphite made of carbon which reflects her interest in philosophy, science and music.  McNally’s pencil works are highly detailed looking as if they may well be the result of scientific readings – their vocabulary has been compared both to musical scores and computer coding, due to its rhythmic and harmonic activity.  In some of her new works, McNally has turned drawing into a sculptural process, pouring pure graphite powder onto large surfaces and then hammering nails into them.  The works shimmer, forming an intricate network of lines and marks.

Emma McNally at Trinity Contemporary. Own photograph.

Back to near where we started, we popped into Simon Lee which has to win top marks for being the buzziest private view of the evening.  It was packed with people drinking and gossiping for Paulina Olowska’s first solo show here.  Her new works continue her exploration of feminist and socially-engaged themes, often channelling or paying homage to other women artists.  Here, she plays with the rudimentary idea of the muse and the imagined, or remembered, image of a mother.  The images have a sense of fragility, trying to preserve a moment in time as it passes by.

Paulina Olowska at Simon Lee. Own photograph.

My feet were now starting to suffer and as I limped to Sarah Myerscough I had a feeling that this may well have to be our final stop.  Tucked away on Brooks Mews, the gallery is presenting an exhibition with works by 11 artists on the subject of monochrome.  There is no pretension, just a few really nice works in black and white.

B&W (Monochrome), Sarah Myerscough Fine Art. Own photograph.

A simple one with which to finish but I couldn’t face walking another pace to another place.  I hobbled round the corner, changed into ballet pumps and scurried home.  The other three galleries on my overly ambitious list will have to wait until another day.

Li Tianbing is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 21st April, www.stephenfriedman.comEmma McNall: Selected Drawings, Atoms Insects Mountains Stars is at Trinity Contemporary until 27th April, www.trinitycontemporary.com.   Paulina Olowska: Mother 200 is at Simon Lee Gallery until 26th May 2012, www.simonleegallery.com. B&W (Monochrome) is at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art until 5th May 2012, www.sarahmyerscough.com.  For more information on the other galleries mentioned please see www.alonzakaim.com, www.flowersgallery.com, www.alancristea.com and www.operagallery.com

More Surprised than Shocked – Hirst Takes Tate

4 Apr

There is a tendency to Hirst-bash which seems more prevalent since Gagosian recently oversaturated the public consciousness, concurrently displaying Hirst’s spot paintings in all of their galleries.  An alarming amount of negative press has led up to his Tate retrospective and, from conversations I overheard, people had turned up to Tate Modern on Monday morning determined to criticise.

I wasn’t expecting any surprises with this exhibition as we all know Hirst’s work inside out, nor was I aiming to analyse the individual pieces; this has been done before and I know what I like and what I don’t like.  I was more interested to see how these works had been collectively displayed.

Damien Hirst, Spot Painting, 1986. Own photograph.

The exhibition brings together works from across his entire oeuvre with over 70 pieces ranging from The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (his large shark in formaldehyde) to his notorious diamond encrusted skull.  Of course, the exhibition doesn’t seek to show everything he has ever produced and his paintings that were briefly shown (and slated) at the Wallace Collection are notably missing.

Damien Hirst, detail of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Own photograph.

Hirst first hit the art scene in 1988 when he conceived and curated Freeze, an exhibition of his own work and that of his fellow students from Goldsmiths.  Many of the works shown there are included in this exhibition for only their second public showing.

Damien Hirst with For the Love of God, 2007. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Hirst once said that ‘becoming a brand name is an important part of life’ and he has certainly achieved that.  He does not deny the importance of money and the exhibition screams of blatant wealth; For the Love of God, a platinum cast of an eighteenth-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, sold in 2007 for £50 million, has its own security guards and is displayed in isolation in the Turbine Hall.  For the first 12 weeks of the exhibition, his iconic skull stands as a distinct element to the main retrospective, a free display illustrating Hirst’s ideas of mortality and value that will tempt people to head upstairs and pay admission.  It’s harder to get in to see than the Crown Jewels.

The skull’s special exhibition room. Own photograph.

The wow factor and status associated by many with owning a Hirst overflows into the exhibition shop where they clearly believe people will pay £36,800 for a limited edition plastic skull!

Hirst’s shop at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Hirst’s works present a study of the transience and frailty of life – areas with which he has been obsessed over the years in a repetitive process that can sometimes be tiring even for the most ardent fans.  But, whatever you think of him, everyone knows Damien Hirst and he has marked our culture like no other contemporary artist.

The exhibition is beautifully presented and the curators have succeeded in showing Hirst at his best.  Hirst has never been one to follow conventional artistic paths; in 2008, in an unprecedented event, he sold 244 of his works through Sotheby’s rather than through a commercial gallery, engaging directly with the art market in a method that enraged many.  The walls of room 13 are clad with wallpaper derived from the covers of catalogues from this sale and it is this sort of curatorial spark that excites the exhibition.

Room 13 at Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst retrospective. Own photograph.

My main criticism and dislike, however, is the room of live butterflies – a recreation of In and Out of Love, his installation from 1991 that was shown at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery where one floor contained five white canvases embedded with pupae from which butterflies hatched.  They then spent their lives eating, feeding and breeding.  Downstairs in the gallery, dead butterflies were pressed onto brightly covered monochrome canvases.

Damien Hirst, detail of In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. Own photograph.

The butterfly installation can now be seen in a very humid room six which has been specially designed for this purpose.  Tate are quick to point out that the butterflies are all sourced from reputable UK butterfly houses and are known to thrive in these conditions (overcrowded galleries?).  They are also working with a professional consultant to check that the butterflies are comfortable.  There is no doubt they are stunning specimens but I found this work horrific.  Let Hirst play with dead animals but leave the live ones alone (I know I’m a hypocrite but I don’t feel as strongly when he kills flies).  Although there is a strict one-way system that allows staff to check that no one leaves with butterflies clinging to their clothes, the butterflies are still escaping all the time;  I saw several being returned on Monday morning, one even carried back to its habitat by Nick Serota.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this room has to shut; it is in a ridiculous location, forcing people into a hot room filled with live insects who keep flying towards the plastic sheeting in a bid for freedom.

Damien Hirst, detail of In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. Own photograph.

Moving on, Pharmacy takes over an entire gallery with drug-filled vitrines and colourful jars creating an ecclesiastical aura.  Hirst’s art continues to become bigger, bolder and brasher.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, 1992. Own photograph.

Although it is a powerful work, I’ve never been keen on A Thousand Years.  When it was last shown at the RA, I found the smell quite nauseating.  But even worse was Crematorium, an oversized ashtray filled with cigarette butts and ash, a contemporary memento mori – a lifetime’s accumulation of the debris of smoking that also parallels the cremated remains of the human body.

Damien Hirst, Crematorium, 1996. Own photograph.

A Thousand Years shows Hirst’s overt debt to Bacon and, of course, this is not the only work that alludes to his greatest influence.  The Acquired Inability to Escape plays on Bacon’s methods of enclosing figures within cage-like lines.  The objects suggest a human presence within the vitrine while the structure generates a sense of confinement and distances the viewer to another remove.

Damien Hirst, The Acquired Inability to Escape , 1991. Own photograph.

The very clever titles that Hirst uses give his work more gravitas than it would otherwise have and they do not require too much close attention so the crowds may be more bearable than at most of the other London blockbusters.  Instead, this exhibition is about the concept of the retrospective and overall impression of the exhibition aesthetic as a whole.  Whatever you think of Hirst, he has made his mark on art history.

Hirst’s spin paintings at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

I was surprised by how good the exhibition is; in parts, it presents Hirst as a serious artist and shows a progression in his thinking.  It is generating a love/hate response but, this is what he does and really I don’t think he would want things any other way!

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern until 9th September 2012 and For the Love of God can be seen in the Turbine Hall until 24th June 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

(I’ve come down with the dreaded lurgy so I’m sorry that there will only be one post this week.  Happy Easter!)

Worth the Walk down Upper Street: Burri at The Estorick

27 Mar

It was a sunny spring day and I hopped off the tube at Angel for a stroll to lunch at Byron, opposite the Business Design Centre, before heading to the Estorick for their latest exhibition of Alberto Burri.  But wow!  I always forget quite how long Upper Street is and this is not a walk to be undertaken by the faint-hearted.  The Estorick is at the Highbury and Islington end of the road and there is a good reason why this street is serviced by two tube stations.  By the time I eventually arrived, I imagine I looked a little worse for wear.

As popular as it is, I still feel that the Estorick is one of London’s hidden treasures; it is a small but marvellous gallery that many people have still never visited, including many of my colleagues in the art world.  I know that there are always far too many things to see in London but the Estorick is a gem.

The Estorick Collection.  Image via http://citygirldiariesec1.blogspot.co.uk

I didn’t really know what to expect on entering their Burri exhibition as he is an artist I knew very little about, partly because this is the first major retrospective of his work in this country.  In fact, only one of the works in this exhibition is a British loan – a piece owned by Tate who currently house it in storage.  Made of acrylic and collaged hessian sack, the painting resembles a field with a burning red sky.  Its energy appeals to all our senses.  Burri is known and admired internationally (and a work of his recently sold at Sotheby’s in London for over £3 million) but people seem to have had difficulty placing him in art history.   So, perhaps this is why he has been sidelined but this exhibition seeks to change that and open our eyes.

Alberto Burri, Sacking and Red, 1954. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Initially working in an Expressionist style, Burri’s work developed swiftly.  He quickly abandoned this mode and began exploring the boundaries of the two-dimensional nature of wall-mounted artwork.  The first piece I encountered was iron on painted wood and stretcher – a dark and truly emotive work with textures that really grab you and don’t let go.  Burri is famous for using such unorthodox materials as sacking, twine and PVA glue.  I’m a fan of heavily textured works anyway but these pieces have a new depth to them enhanced by Burri’s abstract vocabulary.

Alberto Burri, Iron, 1960. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

The first room also includes a selection of his Klee-like tempera on card and paper works.  Although these are more intimate, they lack the passion and dynamism of the more striking mixed media works.

Alberto Burri, Untitled, 1952.  Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Room two opens with Black from 1961, another powerful and dynamic canvas.  Burri constantly plays with surface; the Cretto works, with zinc oxide and PVA glue on cellotex, look like giant crevices splitting the earth yet they retain a harmonic delicacy, exemplifying Burri’s skill.

Alberto Burri, White Cretto, 1975. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Burri’s interest in unconventional materials was, in part, inspired by Umberto Boccioni’s 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture in which he exhorted artists to reject the exclusivity of such materials as bronze and marble.  Burri has certainly taken this to heart (or as I accidentally wrote in my first draft, taken this to art – spot on I think!) and makes use of simple materials to create his own unique masterpieces.  His sacking often resembles lacerated and stitched flesh which some scholars have suggested may be autobiographical, referencing his own medical background.   Burri was trained in medicine and had served as a doctor in North Africa during the Second World War before being taken prisoner in 1943.  It was here, interned in a camp that Burri began to paint with materials supplied by the YMCA.  As well as this medical interpretation, other works invite political readings while some resemble the landscape of his Umbrian homeland enhanced by his use of earthy colours.  But, Burri dismissed analysis that gave the works symbolic value.  For him, it was about the simple integrity of material and the work’s formal quality; he said its meaning was to be found within the composition and nowhere else.

Alberto Burri, Sack, 1954. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

From 1954, Burri introduced fire to his work – charring, scorching and melting materials.  This development shows his power to manipulate his materials.  The exhibition demonstrates the incredible range with which Burri worked.  His methods show that he concentrated on one material until he exhausted the possibilities it offered him, pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable.  Burri’s works are as far from traditional representation as possible; instead, they are an exploration of the aesthetic potential of materials.  So much of art is inherently contradictory and Burri is no different – the works are aggressive but romantic and protective.

Alberto Burri, Combustion, 1961. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

The wall labels are perfect, informative without overloading visitors; they help us to understand his life, theoretical approach and the rationale behind his artwork.  Burri is recognised as one of leading protagonists of Art Informel, a movement that focused on the instinctive and irrational aspects of the artistic process as much as on the finished product.  From the simplest materials, Burri is able to create something monumental and striking, imbued with energy and movement.  These are works about process and about the fundamentals of material.  Although I didn’t really know who Burri was, he was undoubtedly a master of the 20th century who revolutionised the artistic vocabulary of post-war art.  I have long been planning a trip to Sicily and now I have even more desire to go as Burri’s work Cretto is a must-see.  After a devastating earthquake destroyed Gibellina, Burri used the city’s ruins to create a concrete cemetery, preserving the layout of the hillside town.  It’s said to evoke a comforting gravestone that transforms a horrific catastrophe into something beautiful and poignant.

Alberto Burri, Cretto, 1985-89. Image via http://palermo.for91days.com/tag/cretto-di-burri/

Although only a three-room exhibition (the rest of the Estorick is taken over by their permanent collection), this show was definitely worth the walk.  If you don’t already know Burri’s works, it is important to look at them in the way that he intended and to learn about him and his influences afterwards.  We may have previously failed to acknowledge Burri as truly important but it is now time to do so and this beautiful exhibition does just that.

Alberto Burri:  Form and Matter is at The Estorick Collection until 7th April, www.estorickcollection.com

Two days left to catch the Burra Bug

17 Feb

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.

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