...yet another exhibition I find time to review just as it closes!
“Glamour and squalor appealed to him in equal measure” – curator Simon Martin
“I never tell anybody anything. So they just make it up.” – Edward Burra, 1973
Not So Naive
Orthodoxy states that an artist’s reputation is either cemented or demolished by his death. But as pretty much everything about Edward Burra was unorthodox, things didn’t work out that way. Despite ill health, including arthritic hands seemingly unable to hold a brush, he worked solidly from the Twenties through to his death in 1976. After which he lay pretty much ignored, for this is the first major show dedicated to him in over a quarter-century.
Which raises the inevitable question, how come? After all, you’d have to be a pretty hasty visitor to skip over his exceptional talent, at least the equal of Otto Dix and others we now venerate. Partly it’s the ongoing prejudice against modern British art, a prejudice seemingly held more deeply by the British than anyone else. Combined with this, he willfully refused to schmooze the art circuit or even join any group for very long. (A career no-no in the movement-centered era of Modernism.)
Moreover, he wasn’t really a painter at all, more an illustrator or cartoonist. His colour sense is strong and vital, but he often uses flat or gradated tones. The few drawings on display (such as ’Le Rue de Lappe’, 1928) look less like preparatory sketches and more like finished works which simply haven’t been coloured in yet. (In one of my few criticisms I could have wished for more of these.)
He neither paraded a series of innovative styles like Picasso, nor demonstrated a visibly great skill. In fact, his work can look quite artless. Something like ’Market Day' (1926, above) has naive art’s flattened perspective and singular vision; every aspect of the picture is depicted in the same amount of detail, and figures appear in a series of flat planes where ‘back’ is merely a function of ‘up’. We simply assume the stuff at the top of the painting (the sea, the chimneys) is behind the stuff below it.
It sometimes suited Burra to play the role of an outsider, but don’t believe a word of it. He had studied at the Royal College of Art, and his sharp eye knew exactly what it was doing. ’Harlem’ (1934) has a building running down its right side, the perspective forcibly exaggerated, crashing against the flat planes at the back. But Burra clearly wanted it to look that way. When he wanted something else, as in ’The Nitpickers’ (1932, above), there’s nothing but note-perfect perspective.
Nor was naive his only influence. Writing in Art Quarterly magazine, curator Simon Martin comments on “his ability to draw together disparate influences into his own distinctive worldview.” You can see contemporaries Dix, Grosz, Rousseau and Picasso, plus historical figures such as Hogarth or Goya, all taken up and absorbed. At several points the show points out where another work is being referenced.
Only over one instance does this power desert Burra. He’s clearly influenced by Modernism’s reduction of shapes to basic forms, as seen in artists such as Leger. (For example, in ’Soldiers Playing Cards.’) After all, why bother with considering how all the muscles and ligaments shape a leg when a simple cylinder gets the same information over? Isn’t it like cutting the extraneous words from a sentence? But Leger is interested in the language of gesture and movement; universalising, de-individualising his figures works for him. The very same thing works against Burra.
The show has the good taste to spare us the man at his worst. But ’Marriage a la Mode’ (1928/9, above) has some of it, the limbs a little too tubular, the colours a little too sharp. It’s reminiscent that on his off-days Burra could be Beryl Cook for the intelligensia.
High Art, Low Culture
Burra’s early years virtually epitomise the Roaring Twenties, where sexuality was as explosive as popping champagne. They’re works which exude sexual display and conquest like they invented it, which given the era isn’t too far from the truth. (See ’Saturday Market’, 1932, above, or ’Harlem Striptease’, 1934.) We encounter successions of barmaids of dubious gender serving sailors of uncertain proclivity, as likely to be found dancing with each other as with the girls. (See for example ’Dockside Cafe, Marseilles’, 1929, up top.)
They often have titles like the start of dirty jokes, such as ’Three Sailors at the Bar’ (1930), to which the works don’t scrimp on punch lines. As Kathryn Hughes comments in the Guardian: “Phallic jokes abound, with obscene shapes thrusting up and out from every corner.”
These are often achieved through perspective games, where characters ‘touch’ despite being at different points in the picture plane. For example, the tradesman in ’Saturday Market’ should by logic be staring ahead. But we all know he’s actually ogling that pink-stockinged leg as he handles his peppers. Yet Burra uses this effect for more than risque jokes...
A truly great artist can straddle apparent contradictions. In violation of one of the central tenets of Modernism, Burra’s drawings are scenes – windows upon real-world spaces, merely built up through paint. Yet simultaneously they juxtapose their elements, as in a collage.
For example, ’The Snack Bar’ (1930, above) takes place in a physical space, a room we could map out if we had a mind to. The three figures don’t look at each other. Yet they overlap, forming a central line running up from the lower left corner then snaking back to meet the man in glasses. Burra has lined them up for us, he’s inviting us to compare them.
His biographer Jane Stevenson has called him a “camera,” an idea which seems to have become a meme. Martin tells us Burra was “a spectator with an extraordinary eye for detail”, but then later qualifies this - “such scenes were no doubt a combination of memories and elements drawn from the movies he watched avidly.” (Burra never made sketches.) Yet ’Market Day’ was made before he visited the Mediterranean, without looking particularly different to the works after. For it’s part, ’Silver Dollar Bar’ (1953), is a scene of a Boston bar drawn after Burra was back in England.
“Camera” suggests a photographer, a one-man paparazzi crew usefully turning up for us in all the right places. Indeed, Burra had just such a knack. Yet ultimately this view is inadequate.
Let’s start on a point of agreement. Burra can certainly draw a teeming crowd yet make each figure completely individualised. His letters home, enthusing over his foreign visits, would be peppered with caricatures and sketches. Combined with their apparent artlessness this makes his compositions look, in the most positive sense of the word, arbitrary. In the inverse of the traditional God-like “artist’s perspective” they are ‘snapshotty’; we feel we have merely happened to turn up on the street at this time, at this point.
For example, in ’Harlem Scene’ (1934/5, above) you feel the two background figures standing by a lamp-post could as easily be in the foreground, the space behind them opened up into a new scene peopled by new characters. The sense becomes a tug, pulling you into the picture. It’s that city feeling of the streets running endlessly, an unreachable vanishing point no matter how far you might walk.
But Burra’s quite unlike the Impressionists, insistently trying to capture the world as it fleetingly manifests before them, painting from life and obsessing over qualities of light. His work is simultaneously lifelike and larger than life. If he never sketched scenes, that was most likely a deliberate act. He wanted that filtration process, where some details faded and others enlarged in his mind. Real people and actual places were to him just triggers to a more symbolic attempt to capture the essence of a place. As previously said of Gauguin, Burra is “more fable than documentary.” His figures are idealised. He just idealised low-life, that’s all.
Types are commonly encountered in the culture of the interwar years, and very often in it’s art. It was as if there were only so many blocks for us to be chips from, that they can be listed and categorised. The paradox inside Burra’s talent is that he could individualise each figure yet also make them the epitome of a Type, the Tart, the Drunk, the cocky Sailor and so on.
Burra’s depictions of black people come into play here, appearing first in his views of Marseilles but then in greater numbers as he visited Harlem in New York. Simon Martin takes what would seem to be the general view: “At a time of widespread racist imagery in the media, his pictures were conspicuous for the lack of prejudice and genuine warmth towards black people.”
In ’Harlem’ (1934, above) the foreground figure leans insouciantly, hand in pocket, staring absently off from under a pork pie hat. No servant and certainly nobody’s fool, he emits effortless cool. The Twenties may well have been the point where white folks started to sample black culture, as Harlem became something of a Mecca to thrillseekers and bright young things danced to jazz.
It’s true that there is much that is positive in these images, and they might well have been pushing the boundaries of the era. While in New York Burra would stay in Harlem, and a photograph in the exhibition show him sharing a joke with a black man, a fraternisation which was then highly unusual.
Yet is that really the whole of the story? I wonder if we subconsciously associate artists with higher thoughts, rather than people who merely painted what everyone else was thinking, making them into beacons when they were really barometers.
As we’ve seen Burra was given to depicting Types, and when a white artist of this era depicts black people as Types, it was never going to end quite so easily. A positive caricature by a white man of a black is still a caricature, a white conception of blackness projected onto him in a fundamentally unequal relationship.
As one obvious point the standard white-perspective depictions of black features are still present. In fact they can be seen still more strongly in other works, such as ’Harlem Theatre’ (1933, above) - the bulging eyes, the thick lips, the gurneying grins. Burra’s depictions were a genuine advance but only a partial one. It seems indulgent and remiss not to point this out.
White folks’ tendency to see black people as epitomising cool, that’s admittedly a little more complex. After all black people of the time were often keen to exhibit this, to the point of inventing the term! Nevertheless, there is an element of reducing black people to an image. Which seems rather different to reducing sailors to an image. Ironically the ‘Harlem Renaissance’, which doubtless brought Burra to the area, was often concerned with black artists presenting a more nuanced and sophisticated view of themselves.
The Descending Boot of War
The Spanish Civil War (or Revolution, depending on your political persuasions) could be seen as the pivot-point of the inter-war years, when what remained of Twenties optimism was shot down by the return of war and the arrival of fascism. Burra, present in Spain as it broke out, certainly had that reaction. The change in his work between the first two rooms is as abrupt as it is extraordinary – marching replaces dancing in the shortest time.
However, Burra’s response is contrary to something like Orwell’s eyewitness accounts. We lose any association with reportage as we move from character studies (however crowded) to symbolic scenes. These much larger works are more like a cross between surrealism (earning Burra his “English Surrealist” tag) and the Biblical allegories so beloved of the Victorians. (In particular see ’The Three Fates and the Pot of Gold’, 1935.)
At first glance the composition is divided by a definite horizontal line, like a battlement, a figure-strewn road stretching away from it. You immediately attempt to resolve the work into two halves, advancing military and fleeing civilians. But you realise the division doesn’t work. The cloaked figures are too ambiguous, the one with head in hands behind the barricade. They’re victims together at the very same time that they’re divided. The Great War at least conscripted you before killing you. Not this time.
Burra was not long back in England before the Second World War had started, and such themes stuck in his work. For example ’Soldiers’ Backs’ (1942/3) again concentrates on faceless figures, soldiers trying to climb aboard an already-overstuffed lorry, almost obscured by the push of teeming figures. Once again their faces are obscured, their thrusting backs alternating between grey and rusty red as if they’re in conflict between themselves, their round caps like parodies of halos. At the time Burra wrote to a friend of staying in wartime Rye, “the whole place is an armed camp with crashing tanks roaring up and down the road.” (A quote from the show, but rather inexplicably placed by another picture.)
Sometimes he takes the change too far. Previously, in much smaller works, he could take any level of detail and put it in service to his compositions. In some pieces here, such as ’Storm in the Jungle’ (1931), the sheer welter of detail becomes too much and throws off your eye.
Yet other works keep the cartoonishness and balance it against the horror. For example ’Skull in a Landscape’ (1946, above) features a rather Disneyfield skull, but where you might expect a grin you instead face a blank-eyed grimace.
The Danse Macabre
In this period, when figures aren’t faceless they either wear masks or might as well do. ‘Beelzebub’ (1937/8, above) balances both. In the background a bunch of identikit figures remorselessly destroy a church, their faces chillingly impassive. They’re reminiscent of the theory that Tolkien’s Orcs represented the soulless destruction of war.
(As a sidenote, Burra’s choice of a church seems somewhat partisan for someone who otherwise saw the Civil War as self-destructiveness run riot. It was the Republicans, and in particular the Anarchists, who attacked churches, as Catholicism was so in league with the Fascists. But perhaps it symbolised something else for Burra. The now-broken columns and arches of the Church suggest Classicism. Burra had been associated with neo-classicism, a movement following World War One which reincorporated classical motifs into Modernism. Perhaps by the Church he intends us to see the hordes assaulting art and culture.)
But beside and above this scene stands Beelzebub, his figure running the height of the painting. Against the more somber colours behind him, only the tip of the spear matches his blood-red hue. His face is grotesquely expressive, his pose relaxed and nonchalant. He stands outside the picture, gloating at the handiwork of others made at his instigation. Apparently unnoticed, perhaps we shouldn’t see him as inhabiting the picture plane at all, but an outside force looking in just as we are.
He represents the force of evil. His grotesque laugh is not a mask over his face, it’s more like a mask that is his face. It’s reminiscent of K-Punk’s comment about Heath Ledger’s Joker in the ’Dark Knight’ film: “What Ledger does, in many ways, is play the make-up.” Our culture is obsessed with masks as disguise or cancellation, the wardrobe of bank robbers. But most societies see masks as having a ritual purpose, you put the mask on not to hide something but to let something out.
More obvious masks abound in this period, with a particular penchant for carnivalesque bird masks, as in ’Bird Men and Pots’ (1946, above).
A Sea Change?
It’s perhaps a paradox that the perennial outsider, who never attended even his own openings, was so great at capturing the zeitgeist. The change in his work seems extraordinary, faces once so characterful becoming so anonymised. Yet it’s not actually the sea change that it looks...
In the Twenties pictures, women’s faces in particular are already starting to resemble masks, with their heavily made-up eyes and lipstick so thick it resembles a false mouth. (Check out for example ’Les Folles de Belleville,’ 1928.) A black woman in the foreground of ’The Tram’ (1927/9) has the African mask face we often see with Picasso, with the line running neatly down the middle.
But it’s not just the girls. Check out the face on the central figure in ’Silver Dollar Bar’, (above) an expressionist distortion not so far away from that of ’Beelzebub.’
More widely, the change in tone is not as great as it may seem. In another wrongly placed quote George Melly should be beside ’Beelzebub’ when he says: “some of [Burra’s] phantasmogoria are evil, but many of his creatures are simply louche and disreputable... he was acquainted with imps as well as demons.”
The figure of Beelzebub exists precisely in that interchange, as if sacking a Church was a simple practical joke played on a grander scale. There’s no absolute break between him and the equally louche figure we saw in ’Harlem.’ In fact it’s the reverse, it’s knowing how to have a good time that makes the devil simultaneously more horrific and more seductive.
To restrict Burra’s range in such a way may seem a criticism. But in fact it’s not at all. Burra simply knew what he could do well, what he wanted to do and succeeded in putting his best foot forward.
Part two (briefer, honest!) here...