The Edward Burra exhibition at the Pallant Gallery Chichester is a stunning show. If you ever thought watercolour is a twee, gutless medium you need to see these paintings. They use watercolours, as you have never seen the medium used before, to create some amazing images.
Clearly Burra was not content to dwell on the formal aspects of painting but used his imagination and talent to set down his commentary on the society in which he found himself, whether that was Rye in Sussex where he lived, Paris where he studied, New York and Harlem which he visited, or the horrors of the Spanish civil war.
His style exposes the subject in pin-sharp detail while the settings range from the domestic to the surreal. His modelling of bodies is more like the way many sculptors work, explaining the mass of the person using shading to describe the way light falls across the surface of 3D shapes.
The exhibition is divided into five main sections.
High Art, Low Culture – The first room includes people in bars, on the streets, talking and laughing and is inhabited by sailors, prostitutes and people in jazz clubs. The images are packed with detail, not a square inch is wasted and yet Burra’s sense of design makes them work beautifully.
In “The Snack Bar” 1930, the barman carries on slicing ham while a girl eats her sandwich, ignoring a man in the background who is also eating something. More weird is “Marriage a la mode” 1928-29 where the central group of bride, groom, best man, maid of honour and priest are surrounded by strange goings on amongst the congregation. There is a weeping woman, flying children with watering cans and a wonderful cast of lookers on. Every inch is packed but the overall design and visual logic holds it all together as a scene lit by floodlight.
The “Silver Dollar Bar” from 1953 is a virtuoso piece of chiaroscuro and composition, but in style is quite different from much of his work. It is breathtaking the way he takes liberties with perspective and uses colour dramatically rather than descriptively.
The Danse Macabre – has more serious intent, with titles such as:
“War in the sun” 1938 and “Soldiers Backs” 1942. Figures are distorted and abstracted and colours are heightened. In the civil war works the bulbous figures and purple/orange figures are reminiscent of some of the horror images in the frescos Signorelli executed in the Duomo at Orvieto. Other figures seem to carry an echo of Leger and his figures made up of cylinders and spheres.
Other images are closer to fantasy such as “Beelzebub” or “Dancing Skeletons” 1934. In “Blue Baby Blitz Over Britain” 1941 a symbolic threatening bird-like figure hovers over a barren landscape representing war.
I find these images less compelling that the more direct subjects. It’s as if when an artist decides to deliberately tackle big social themes, the images themselves lose their lightness, becoming waterlogged with their messages.
A Sense of Unease
Mainly post-war pictures including the wonderful image of a group of youths kicking around a straw effigy. Full of pent-up emotion, what is this dummy being used as a surrogate for, one wonders?
“Esso” is a scene of an industrial port with cameo beach scenes, apocalyptic black ducks and storks with spiky red legs against a backdrop of an industrial coastline dominated by a huge bridge carrying traffic across the bay. A dystopian vision which ranks alongside Lowry’s industrial best.
The British landscape sees Burra returning to the landscape around his home territory of the South of England. His colour palette is more restricted and in many works the images are more literal eg “Landscape near Rye” and Cabbages Spring Field Rye”. The lack of people in these paintings points up how important they are in getting across Burra’s ideas and in “The Harbour Hastings” it is as if with a sigh of relief his cast of characters reappears to animate this scene of boatbuilding, net mending and other seaside activity.
Not everyone shares this opinion, as one other visitor to the exhibition said on entering the landscape room “What a lovely change after all that red – just look at that lovely sky.”
Burra experimented and tried new ideas throughout his life and in 1973 he painted “Sugar Beet East Anglia” building on his landscape work, but reintroducing people, this time as semi transparent almost ghost-like presences. Was he thinking about the contrast between the permanence of the land and the temporary nature of flesh and blood? I don’t know but it makes a haunting image, as does his painting of the “Road to Whitby” wreathed in mist and bathed in sunlight by turns, just as any visitor to the North York Moors will have seen but perhaps not capture on paper.
“English Countryside” 1965 reasserts the importance of the overall design of a picture, contrasting the abstract beauty of the landscape with the manmade scars of roads and power lines.
It is astonishing that one artist could compass so much, even without taking account of his difficulty in holding a brush or pen because of his arthritis. Finally, it was great to see him being interviewed and saying who cares about what I say, just go and look at the pictures, they tell you everything I have to say!
Mac in a Box