Wednesday 22 February 2012


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:


  1. Thanks for a very interesting – and lucid! essay. I think there is some virtue to the ‘I am a camera’ idea about Burra or I wouldn’t have said it, but I’ve also felt that a number of critics have been quite lazy about doing their own thinking, and I’ve really enjoyed reading this. You were making the point that it’s odd for someone to pop into visibility after 25 years. I think, if I may say so, that is partly down to a half decent biography – critics tend to fight shy of artists till some earnest soul has sorted out the chronology and so forth in case they make a fool of themselves. But beyond that, Burra’s work is an absolutely terrible fit with any simplified version of British art between the wars (as represented by, e.g., Tate Britain). As ideas about the art of the 20s/30s has got more complex and nuanced, it’s become more possible to fit Burra in at last.

    1. BTW, one thing I do disagree with you about, that he had no instinct to oppose Fascism even in Spain. 'Blue Baby' is a picture about the Spanish Civil War (not the Blitz). What about 'War in the Sun', and all those pictures of dehumanised, de-individualised soldiers?

  2. Thanks for the comments, Jane, and sorry for the slow reply. I’d like to claim Lucid Frenzy is now back on line but that would be something fairly close to an outright lie. (Things aren’t exactly bankrolled here, truth to tell.)

    I have to admit I haven’t yet read your biography and was picking up the ‘camera’ thing at once remove. But then my point was how widely it had been spread. I’d be the first to admit I don’t have any hard and fast evidence for my ‘memory as filter’ theory. But it makes sense to me so I’m sticking with it!

    I wish now I’d said more about Burra’s illustrational style. Art critics, even in our modern interdisciplinarian world, still seem to look down on such a style, and associate it with simple reportage. Burra must have seen a woman at a snack bar, a black hipster at a Harlem corner and, lacking a camera, made himself into one. They’re all mere journalists, whereas oil painters are like creative writers. If seem to decry the word ‘camera’, it’s that idea I’m taking against.

    The comic artist Glenn Dakin did a whole strip about a plant he had, because it “didn’t fit into this fit-in world.” And similarly Burra’s cantankerous outsiderness and insistence on trudging his own path is a large part of his appeal.

    Which in many ways doesn’t fit with the Tate’s ethos of “everything to its ism.” That chronology chart they have along Tate Modern’s wall, it sometimes feels like anything that doesn’t neatly fit into those neat little boxes is chopped up or cast out. Like they’ve got all their signage and cue cards prepared, then they go looking for some artworks to fit them.

    But at the same time perhaps it has its upsides. For one thing it insists there must be a point to Modernism, which makes it stand against ‘art for art’s sake.’ Trad art history buffs are always fulminating that this excludes “beauty”, like that’s some eternal category outside of history.

    I’m fairly sure the Pallant House exhibition claimed ‘Blue Baby’ to be about the Blitz. Did Burra say it was about Spain? (Not doubting you, just curious.) ‘War in the Sun’ I see as an anti-war statement. And fair enough, I am as anti-war as the next man. But anti-fascist it’s not, for that we’d need soldiers who weren’t dehumamised or deindividualised. And I wonder if anti-fascism shouldn’t trump anti-war. To me it portrays war as something like winter, something which inevitably rolls round every so often.

  3. Blue Baby was shown in the Redfern Gallery 1942 exhibition, titled 'BB, Blity over Britain', and snapped up by the Imperial War Museum. But Ed, who was pretty unwell at the time, was not involved and though he titled pictures in the privacy of his diary he didn't share these titled with the gallery. So the title was presumably supplied by Rex Nan Kivell in the hopes of selling it, which he did. But Ed's friend Clover Pertinez said he started working on it after he came back from Spain.They were seeing a lot of each other since she had also fled Spain and she found her deeply stuffy and respectable parents pretty tiresome so I think hers is the more reliable take on the thing. Ed's relationship with the camera is quite interesting since another friend, Bar Ker-Seymer, was a photographer: there's an early pic for instance with two apaches chatting in a Parisian bar, and about a quarter of the picture plane is taken up by the nearest apache's flat cap. If you were there with a camera standing a couple of feet behind, that's what you'd see - actually there is a very similar 20s photo in the random collection of Bar's stuff that has ended up in the Tate (a lot was lost during the war). Like that tadpole effect we have become accustomed to in the photographing of celebs -- to return to Ed's apaches, the human eye edits for importance, and it takes a camera to tell you that most of what you are seeing is flat cap. Bar's camera told him something different, and he was interested by this. If I may be so bold, as Ed would say, sorry to hear Good Ship Lucid Frenzy is low in the water. It's a terrific blog and I hope you can keep on with it.

  4. Enjoyed this review greatly as I'm an old Aussie who probably won't ever see a Burra "in the flesh". Hadn't heard of him at all when I was in Britain 1980 and 2003, but am passionately interested in his work, especially as most of them are strong watercolours with gouache. You haven't a photo of The Tram have you?
    Annie, Brisbane

    1. Jane here - if anything ever takes you to Adelaide there are two in the National Gallery of South Australia, 'Silence' and 'The Birds'. If you were going that way, it might be a good idea to contact the gallery in advance just in case you go to the trouble of turning up and they aren't on view. If stuff isn't on display but you're reasonably polite, curators can often be persuaded to arrange a viewing, but not on the instant.

  5. I'm afraid this seems the best Google can muster on 'The Tram.' (The woman near the bottom with the pot on her head was the figure I was referring to in the review. Hopefully after Jane's biog and the exhibition interest in Burra won't be a flash in the pan but permanently renewed, and more stuff of his will make it onto the web.