Saturday, 12 November 2011

Edward Burra

Pallant House, Chichester (review from several years ago)

Burra is the forgotten artist everyone has heard of and this is an opportunity to see a lot of his work at once. He worked mainly in watercolour because he became progressively disabled from arthritis. Born in 1905, he was a Bright Young Thing of the 20s - he made friends at art school (he went aged 15), and for the rest of his life kept in close touch by letter.

"It was so funny my visit as of course i was asked to bring MY WORK and before the big game woman and her companion saw it they kept rushing into the most awful artists material picture shops and saying 'Oh you MUST come in too, this is SUCH an interesting shop dont you ADORE that' pointing to a small water colour of the Virgin M nursing an allenburys progressive baby with a gas ring going off round its head seated on a toadstool in bluebell wood."

His letters are all in this style, camp and beady. He and his gang went to Paris, where they went to all the best bars, nightclubs and dives. He adored the black dancer Josephine Baker, and she turns up in his art (in one picture she and a troupe of half-dressed girls have invaded a rather staid teashop in an English seaside town).

His early paintings (of chorus girls, sailors and cafes in Marseille) are done in a meticulous "air-brushed" style that makes his people look as if lit from both sides. Perhaps he learned it from the cinema - he was a breathless fan of silent movies with their over-the-top depictions of the last days of Pompeii, Babylon, Rome...

He lived all his life in his parents' house in Rye, Sussex, but he loved to travel. His mother would say she was never sure if he'd gone out to get a packet of cigarettes or to get a boat to Mexico. In New York he hung out in Harlem and painted its bars, front steps, dudes and elevated railway. Look out for the tiny vignettes of New York buildings and shop fronts in the distance. From Mexico he took the partying skeletons from the Day of the Dead.

During the war he was confined to Rye. He came under the influence of Dali and borrowed his style - dark shadows, bodies devolving to egg shapes - and painted large surrealist pictures that are some kind of comment on the terrible events of the time. He also painted the Sussex scene - people growing cabbages, army lorries, empty roads. But these pictures often have a nightmarish and sinister twist: farmers mix with weird black-hooded figures. Gradually Dali recedes.

After the war he continued to paint the countryside, now becoming crowded with motorcycles and oil tankers. He seemed to disapprove of the oil trade, but his oil tankers are beautifully depicted. Diggers chewing up the landscape have evil faces, and an old plough cradles a cow's skull between its "horns". He also painted serene vases of flowers and unpeopled landscapes - though his figures may look naive and jokey his skills were impeccable.

He continued living in his parents' house after their death, and died himself in 1977. He never married.

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