For the first part of this look at the Pallant House’s recent Edward Burra exhibition, click here.
A Sense of Unease
Post-war, Burra did not return to his rakish celebrations of tarts and sailors. If the destruction of war had passed, it’s menace chose to hang about. (In an echo of Adorno, he lamented “what can a satirist do, after Auschwitz?”) In fact this turn to the sinister starts with some of the war works such as ’Blue Baby, Blitz Over Britain’ (1942, above), more ominous and threatening than actually destructive.
Sometimes he simulates this sense of the unease by his faux-naive ability to do the wrong thing and wring a benefit from it. One work (whose title I foolishly failed to take down) is of a street corner, both sides jutting away from us at awkward angles. Leering faces are placed too far in close-up, cut off by the bottom of the frame. The eye roams the composition looking hopelessly for somewhere to rest, alighting only on sinister characters and unexplained goings-on.
In ’The Straw Man’ (1963, above), figures give the titular man a kicking, the composition a frenzied whirlygig of limbs. But their faces are blankly inexpressive, while others chat nonchalantly behind them. This beating is clearly conduced out in the open, both a train and a mother-and-child pass. It’s reminiscent of Pinter plays such as ’The Birthday Party’ or ’The Homecoming’ where violent acts go unexplained, perhaps because they mask secrets but perhaps because they’re simply accepted - an inherent part of life.
The British Landscape
First war and then declining health curtailed trips abroad for Burra. Seemingly uninterested in British characters, he instead turned his attention to the landscape. He had always painted in watercolour as his arthritic hands demanded it, but for the first time his works tended to look like they were. And perhaps watercoloured English landscapes are not everyone’s cup of tea, for these later works divide opinion.
It must be admitted that this section is the most uneven in quality. More interestingly, it’s as varied in subject matter. Some are the rustic scenes the section head might conjure, others head more into his patented sinister style, while others still are quite environmentalist. Of course, this being Burra, one blends into the other as easily as a barmaid’s gender might slip. But let’s separate them into three groups here, for convenience’s sake.
I’ll concede that a work like ’Cabbages, Springfield, Rye’ (1937) looks like the South Downs landscape I know, not the normal twee imposition upon it. But I found the best of the idyllic scenes to be the beach ones, such as ’The Harbour, Hastings’ (1947, above), it’s rope-tugger and languorous central figure balancing labour with leisure.
...but that sense of unease is never far away. In ’Cabbage Harvest’ (1943/5, above) two hunched figures conspire in the foreground, while a third vanishes down a country lane. The landscape behind them is bleak and wind-blasted, a bleak home where people might scheme over cabbages as if they were gold. Kathryn Hughes describes these environments as “a Sussex of rusting farm machinery, animal skulls and the unnerving sense that everyone would rather be somewhere else.”
’Rye Landscape With Figure’ (1947, above) is perhaps the missing link between the sinister and the environmental works. The title suggests another nature painting but the landscape’s strewn with houses, mining and digger trucks. The figure to the right could be one of the cabbage conspirers, but with his placement and red-hued skin he’s surely designed to recall the impish Beelzebub.
If we needed a formula to describe the environmental pictures, we might say they put the rustic and the sinister at war with each other. Let's pick an example - ’Picking a Quarrel’ (1968/9, above). Trucks and rapacious diggers dominate the scene, with fiery eyes and gaping mouths, bright yellow and flat against the undulating contours of the hillside. They’re anthropomorphised just as the human figures fade out, not even the soulless destructive Orcs of earlier but shadows or shades, ancillary to the yellow overseers. This is an era where the machines rule.
Once again Burra is using the qualities of naive art to undermine them. We’re used to this trick played on vehicles from children’s cartoons such as ’Thomas the Tank Engine.’ Here those same conventions are used to give us monsters.
In one way, this couldn’t be any more English and parochial. A virtually disabled man, most likely gay or bisexual, a lover of black culture, encounters fascism in Thirties Spain without any instinct to oppose it, even in paint. Then dig across a British hillside and suddenly he’s outraged!
There’s weight to that view, but it’s a one-sided weight. It’s significant that the environmental works come last of all, in the Sixties and Seventies. This was really the ‘open goal’ era for developers, where we had got good at concreting the countryside but not yet good at figuring what we might be losing. The environmental movement was then in it’s infancy, albeit spurred into action by urgency. As in Spain, Burra was in town just as the fight kicked off. (Of course this is scarcely a resolved issue today, with current government policy both greedy and insane. But it’s become popularly accepted that environmental concerns need to be addressed, even if it’s normally only lip service.)
The final room, ’Painting The Stage’ covers Burra’s work in theatre design. It’s apparently something no previous exhibition has staged and it’s worth doing, for some of his backdrops are the equal of his paintings. (For example ’Don Quixote’, 1950.) But as much of it has been inserted into the chronology above, let’s pass it by here...
Good indeed is the news that the once-marginalised figure of Burra has had this exhibition. But better still that it has by and large served him well, and even seems part of a reawakening of interest in his talent. It may be on in a ‘provincial’ gallery, but it has been well-received (check out the gallery’s page of reviews) and precipitated a BBC4 documentary (see below). Perhaps sometimes talent really does win out in the end.
Burra himself would have flicked disinterested fag ash at the whole thing of course. But had those great pictures slowly been forgotten, we would have been the losers. We can only hope this level of interest continues to grow.
I for one came to the show as a fan and left a bigger fan. I’d been prepared for more repetition of theme and more variance of quality, but was most positively surprised. The reticent Burra spoke voluminously to me.
But perhaps he was right all along. Perhaps I was just making it up...
’I Never Tell Anybody Anything’, Andrew Graham-Dixon’s special on Burra:
Burra interviewed by for the Arts Council in 1973, arthritic hands and black outfit making him look like a bohemian Richard III, parrying questions like he invented cantankerousness: