York Art Gallery: a bit potty

York Art Gallery: a bit potty

I went over to York last week to visit my sister, and while I was there we popped into York Art Gallery which recently reopened to the public after an £8 million revamp. However, my sister and a good number of York residents are justifiably outraged by the fact that it now costs £7.50 to visit the gallery. Compare this with Leeds Art Gallery or the Tate and the Walker in Liverpool where entrance to the permanent displays remains free. Continue reading “York Art Gallery: a bit potty”

Edward Burra: The Unquiet Landscape

Near Whitby, Yorkshire 1972

I want to return to the subject of Edward Burra and his paintings.  A few days ago I wrote about the retrospective exhibition currently on show at the Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham.  After returning from the show, my attention was drawn to the chapter in Christopher Neve’s book, Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th Century English Painting, Faber 1990, in which Neve, in his limpid prose, seems to inhabit Burra’s consciousness, probing the psychological roots of Burra’s strange and sometimes disturbing late landscapes:

Burra paints the hill as a looming pneumatic slope.  Often it is things we dread that most attract us.

The big house and the sickly boy. It was a big house, with a large porch and dwarfing mantelpieces. It was threatened from the front by voluminous trees. For the past ninety years the drive had grown narrower and more tortuous as the trees grew larger. At the back there was a lawn and a terrace and a circular formal pond. All this was at Playden, in Sussex, on the last rise before Rye. The house, called Springfield, had belonged to Burra’s family since 1864. He had been sent away to prep school but, being constantly ill, had received the rest of his education at home. He was a sickly child who worked at watercolours in this bedroom. He lived at home and would continue to work in his bedroom, going up the enormous staircase to draw after breakfast each day until he was nearly fifty.

The trees that stood close to the windows were almost his first subject, especially a gigantic cedar, the level upon level of whose blue branches seemed to be hiding something. A Miss Bradley, in Rye, gave him drawing lessons. He was small and weak. It was his imagination that grew.

Jazz records, 78s in brown cardboard covers, had energy. He painted to jazz. The allegro negro cocktail shaker. Negroes seemed to have the vitality he could not have. Films and novels about low life in the Mediterranean gave him a taste for the louche world he had never seen, the blue curasao with which to subvert the straight-laced barrister’s household in Sussex.

Standing next to a small youth at the entrance scholarship examination at the Royal College of Art, in London, Eric Ravilious could not help noticing that he had made no attempt to draw the life model   on the unaccustomedly large page. Burra spent the day drawing just one eye, in the middle of the paper, in meticulous detail.

When   he   drew  landscapes they were imaginary settings for bizarre figures, the sailors and divorced contraltos of his imagination, in watercolours of which the characteristic colour was a glowing aubergine.

When he went to Marseilles, he was observed by Anthony Powell to keep always out of the sun, so that he had the complexion of a prisoner or an invalid, which he was. He spoke hardly at all, but always with withering aptness. What he liked to draw best were: waiters, seedy decor, nightclubs, cheap suits. He enjoyed the brash and racy. A lifelong exhaustion made him prey on other people’s fun, especially (what he really savoured) bad behaviour, unkind laughter, mendacity, waspishness, all-out malicious enjoyment and any kind of excess. Bad feeling motivated him. It gave his work the energy he did not have.

It was an obscure knack. Through the people he struck out in a leisurely way for the landscape as though in search of absent thoughts, absent causes. When he was younger (though he looked old) he would sit at a corner table, either in reality or in imagination, at some dive like Issy Ort’s and commit the bird-women and negroes to memory so that he could draw them afterwards, hearing the same side of a favourite 78 repeatedly, feeling its elation and vitality in the saxophone solo each time. As he got older he began to see through people. The carnival skeletons and waitresses danced off into the distance. That tinny noise of a Mediterranean festival band, conscripted from boys in the local town, faded. When the people had dragged their smiles away, he was left with the landscape, a big empty distant dreamlike landscape with electric air and the threat of thunder promising relief and a wash of rain.

For the last fifteen years of his life he concentrated chiefly on painting landscapes which are odder and more potent than anything else he did. He denied ever having loved anybody, and now the people were gone. Conrad Aiken, Paul Nash and Malcolm Lowry had added to his ideas as if to a postcard collection or a surreal montage. He had blocked his window with hardboard in order to avoid seeing the view across Rye.  A picturesque town of old rippling roofs and cobbled streets, a tea-shop place was the last thing he needed. While he was at the cinema matinee in his head, his idea was to avoid coming out, blinking, into the sunlight.

Never liking it, it was typical that he should live in Rye all his life. He preferred the gravel pits and sheds on the road to the harbour. He liked the high view down on to the recreation ground, the fisty trees, the debris generated by the   workshops and fishing boats on the winding estuary. He liked the way the slug of Stone Hill crept across the far side of the Marsh.

Under The Hill, 1964-5

In 1953 he left Springfield at last and moved into the disliked town, to a house built on the site of a Methodist chapel bombed during the war. From here, high up, he could look across the Marsh with its snaking river, razor~sharp dikes and flashes of lying water.

From The Ramparts, 1959-61

From side to side his eye shot, but mainly into the far distance unclouded by mist and atmosphere. Like a cockroach creeping up on an outsize ham, he had approached landscape via people. Now he began to paint an extraordinary sequence of panoramic views, quite bereft of figures, which seem as though the feverish child shut in his old bedroom at Springfield, tiring finally of waspishness and gossip, had put his eye down to the level of his eiderdown and looked along it.

A great deal of what he knew of painting figures he brought to landscape. Views that might normally have provided consolation seem in Burra to convey profound unease. Pictures which on the face of it suggest those cheerful expanses unrolling in posters before the Bank-holiday tandem cyclist or traveller by Greenline bus become suddenly distasteful. The metamorphoses which, in paintings of people, had turned a nose into a Venetian beak, now made the most inoffensive landscape feature dilate uncomfortably and strain at its constraining skin. All the senses, not just his visual sense, were heightened, taut.  As to an adolescent, or someone aping insanity for fun, the physical world seemed unnaturally bright, unnaturally actual.  The smallest event could become an intense and terrifying adventure. […]

The extreme oddness of these pictures is very difficult to come to terms with. When they confront you they are quite different from their effect in reproduction. For watercolours, they are abnormally large, very big indeed, often built up by joining several sheets together as the design, like the landscape, took on a life of its own and seemed to expand. They have a dreamlike clarity of surface because they were painted flat on a table with all contrasts of tone deliberately exaggerated and a very careful attention to edges, or rims, so that forms approach each other and stop short in a worrying way that is not at all the way of forms in the real world. This produces a look of glassy clarity and clean air which makes vision boundless as if to the magnetic mountain. […]

The working method which contributed to this strangeness was developed in his bedroom as a child and never varied. He could work anywhere, on rickety tabletops in hotels if necessary. He explained this as being the least taxing method possible, because he was almost permanently tired and would have worked lying down if that had been practical. Beginning on one page at the bottom right-hand corner, he progressed upwards and to the left in an arc, adding subsequent sheets when necessary until the drawn design was complete, and then  filling it in. The process of selection he used was mainly the effect of memory. He did not paint on the spot but sometimes used drawings made after seeing a view. Because the drawings were done after seeing the landscape, and the painting from them was often not begun until many months later when the scene had come to the boil in his mind, there were two clear intervals between seeing the subject and making the picture during which his imagination had the chance to act on it. There was yeast in his imagination, as there is in nightmares. The effect was often that two or more swollen or stretched views were combined while giving the impression that the picture was one landscape painted from direct observation.

Industrial Landscape, 1973

He would sit in a car, watching.  All over England, people park cars at strategic high points and sit looking at extensive views as though the act of looking is somehow self-justifying. The separateness of a view emphasizes your own impotence. There is little you can do with a view except to stare at it. Beginning in 1965, Burra was driven on regular car journeys around England by his sister Anne. It was she who chose where to stop. They went to empty places where he could see a long way, in East Anglia, on the Yorkshire moors and in the Welsh borders. He sat wherever she chose and watched impassively from lay-bys, just as he had watched human antics through the fumes of nightclubs, memorizing the faces of waiters so that a long time later he could make accurate and compelling pictures from what he had seen.

Landscape, Dartmoor

Was it disenchantment with people that led him repeatedly to paint these empty places, or a fascinated disenchantment with the places themselves?   He seemed to dread them.  They swell, stretch, curve, crease. Bruised clouds stack over them and break open. Floods and fields make their puddles of watercolour. Trees are abruptly lit up in negative as if by a nuclear blast. Rock outcrops are swollen with disease. Chasms dwarf. Bile-yellow and a punishing green can hardly contain themselves. […] Imagine a purple cabbage cut crisply through in section: the curving, vivid edges and faultless intricate divisions are the vegetable shapes in Burra’s landscapes, perfectly adapted to watercolour. But what gives the pictures their emotional potency is their raking depth to the horizon, their roller-coaster perspective.

In the Lake District, Number 2, 1973

I suppose it was always a long way down one of his bars, but by 1960 he could do almost anything with perspective.   Perspective became his longest suit. Romney Marsh may have given him the idea but he found countless ways of extending it. Railway tracks, motorways, dikes and lines of pylons cut directly up his designs from bottom to top. They sink into dead ground and reappear climbing distant slopes. They go over ridge after ridge and still the atmosphere is clear enough to see them plainly. Lines go up his pictures like thermometers rising. Roads bolt upwards to the horizon as though making for a very distant burrow.

Pylons

The landscape is empty because the traffic never stops. The pitiless, remorseless, nose-to-tail traffic; the mobile junkyard of half-human lorries which, snorting their own fumes and grimacing with effort, breast the hills to transport graffiti across intersections and over viaducts until the world is deaf and dumb and all the countryside shaken to bits.

English Country Scene I, c.1970

These machines can turn on each other, earthmovers bite bits out of one another with metal jaws, dog eat dog, and only the half-crazed Bank-Holiday pillion-rider, hair flying, cutting through the traffic, can be seen to be almost entirely human. […]

Picking a Quarrel, 1968

No one would venture willingly off the road into the unholy places where he sometimes shows an isolated figure. A faceless figure, darkened by a trick of the light under leafless trees, is digging a grave or working an allotment.

I cannot see their faces. . .
the knobs of their ankles
catch the moonlight as they pass the stile
and cross the moor among skeletons of bog oak
following the track from the gallows back to the town
– Louis MacNeice.

The Allotments, 1962-3

The only traffic on a forlorn path through a graveyard of boulders (in Connemara) is a figure, the same figure like Death, hooded by an army blanket, repeated three times as though at different stages on its journey. None of the three will ever catch its other selves up, separated by the landscape and by time, its furthest self already distant, moving as surely towards the horizon as the reddleman on the heath. How effortlessly the landscape outlives the traveller! The heart has rotted out of the trees, out of the figures and out of the views themselves.

Connemara, 1962-3

Views across chalk Downs to factory chimneys in Sussex; the Weald seen from above, bulging like the bottom of a boy scout on a bicycle; the cloisonne pattern of Cornish fields broken off by the sea; Dartmoor ready to murder lost hikers; the Lake District with its knees up under the wet viridian blanket; an industrial town itching the lap of a valley; the scarred high places of Yorkshire and Northumberland; hills in Snowdonia like the stockinged heads of criminals; the Wye Valley in a vast gesture parodying Wordsworth and the Sublime. Everywhere there are the giant teeth of broken viaducts, dizzy quarries, white cauliflowers of smoke. Who will give you sixpence for a cup of tea, a cup of comfort, in such a landscape, where the insane traffic throws grit in the face of the receding hitch-hiker and all the meadow plants are poisonous?

Wye Valley

No one has made a more convincing case than Burra against finer feelings in landscape. Even the traffic must have seemed to him to have an energy which he lacked. He watched the countryside as though craving extremes, and painted it as though something terrible were about to happen. Depicting people or depicting landscape, he was a kind of voyeur. About mountains and valleys he made sharp, exaggerated comment. He put round malicious rumours about places so that we see them in a new way. But an imaginative truth always stands for a real truth, and if he played up the awesome, the flawed and threatening, we can see the accuracy of it sticking up through the pelt of fields and moors whenever we look.

Asked about the meaning of his landscape paintings, he gave a version of the reply which I suspect he often used. He simply said: ‘Call in a psychiatrist.’ With his air of subversion he made isolation a virtue. In some ways we are over-civilized. We are surrounded by, and constantly react to, art that insulates us against real feeling.  That includes an easy view of landscape. In its place, Burra shows us a distraught countryside, never limited by its usual benign appearance,  in the hope that we may be unsettled enough to have some feelings of our own.

When he was young he was sent by his mother to London to have his spleen attended to. Instead of going to the doctor he thought of a slightly different kind of operation – more spirited, less useful – and had himself tattooed. His attitude to landscape was very like that. He saw and painted the related but utterly unobvious; and only artists and children have the imagination and courage to do that.

Black Mountain 1968 (detail)

I also came across an article by Adrian Hamilton in The Independent which contained this observation on the late landscapes:

In later life, Burra turned more and more to landscapes. To some, these are the most beautiful – and most serene – works of his career as he turns away from man to nature. They are certainly majestic, done back in Burra’s Rye home after regular tours around the country, when he was driven by his sister. But they are also bleak in mood, as the vanishing point so beloved by the artist leads the eye through virtually treeless landscapes into infinity. Whenever man appears it is as a despoiler of the land, as in Picking a Quarrel of 1968, or as pale ghosts in Sugar Beet, East Anglia of 1973 or cowled black spirits in Black Mountain, from 1968. Burra has a particular hatred of Esso and Shell, whose emblems appear in his most aggressive works.

Billy Chappell recalled car trips with Burra and his sister Anne:

It fascinated me to watch Edward when the car halted by some especially splendid spread of hills, moorland, and deep valleys. He sat very still and his face appeared impassive. He might, I thought, have been staring at a blank wall, until I saw the intensity of his gaze.

Cornish Landscape With Figures and Tin Mine, 1975

One painting which was in the Chichester exhibition, but not included at Nottingham is Cornish Landscape With Figures and  Tin Mine.  This landscape is inspired by the ruined mine workings in Western Cornwall. The two tattooed figures were based on photographs in a French book called Les Tatouages du Milieu by Jacques Delarue and Robert Giraud. Burra himself had a tattoo done in 1928 of an oriental head with a knife through it. The man in a striped coat who appears twice was seen by Burra in a pub in Penzance, while the doleful figure eating a Cornish pasty with crippled hands is a self-portrait.

An English Country Scene II, 1970

Another painting not on show at Nottingham is this watercolour, based on the landscape near Buxton (it looks like it could be the Cat and Fiddle road between Macclesfield and Buxton).  Burra visited the area with his sister Anne in July 1969. He was unafraid of showing man’s impact on the natural landscape, and records the traffic-clogged roads snaking around the hills, giving the lorries and vehicles animalistic characteristics.

A View at Cornwall

See also

Edward Burra: an utterly unique vision

Edward Burra: an utterly unique vision

Back in January I wrote an appreciation of the work of Edward Burra, inspired partly by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent film on the artist broadcast in the autumn and partly by regret at not being able to get to the  first major retrospective of Burra’s work for 25 years at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.

However, last weekend as luck would have it,  I had to travel to Derbyshire and so took the opportunity to catch the exhibition, now on tour, at the Djanogly Art Gallery on the Nottingham University campus.  Burra is an artist whose work I have loved since I first encountered his paintings of Harlem night life.  This extensive exhibition does him proud, with representative work from all stages of his career, including the less well-known British landscapes of the post-war decades.  It was a joy to come face to face with works such as The Straw Man from 1963 which, though remarkable in reproduction, is truly electrifying in the flesh.  The late landscapes are a revelation, too – including paintings such as English Countryside, 1965–7 (above).

Burra was a white Englishman, the son of a rich lawyer who never needed to earn his living.  Born in 1905, he had a dull, comfortable upbringing in the ‘quintessentially English’ town of Rye.  There he had led a particularly closeted life, being  crippled by a rare form of acute rheumatoid  arthritis from an early age, as well as suffering from pernicious anemia.  The combination of fatigue and muscular pain made it too difficult for him to stand for any length of time and explains why virtually all of his paintings are watercolours. But what extraordinary watercolours!   In 1969 the critic Pierre Rouve observed of Burra’s work: ‘The power of his larger compositions is unique and uniquely disconcerting in the eyes of those convinced that watercolours can only water down all colours. To ask them to convey emotional intensity and cerebral strength would seem absurd… And yet this miracle occurs time and time again in Burra’s work’.

For his entire life Burra’s home was the handsome and substantial family mansion set in rolling Sussex countryside, attended by eight servants and with eleven acres of garden perched on a hill overlooking Rye.   Cabbages, Springfield, Rye painted around 1937 (below) depicts the view from the Burra family house.

The opening section of the exhibition, ‘High Art, Low Culture’, concentrates on the paintings of street life in New York, Paris and the south of France with which his name is most commonly associated.  Reading about his upbringing in the book published to accompany the exhibition – Edward Burra by Simon Martin – makes these vibrant paintings seem even more remarkable. As Jane Stevenson writes in one of the essays:

Burra was born into what surely must have been one of the most secure milieux ever to exist: the English upper middle class before the First World War.  His father … was the descendent of three generations of successful bankers. … The infant Edward was automatically entered for Eton; the family outlook was profoundly right-wing and class-conscious.  His grandmother, whom he loved, was a member of the anti-socialist British Empire Union.

Yet this young artist, raised in an exclusive rural setting, produced paintings in the 1920s and 1930s that revelled in the vitality of modern city life – paintings that are now some of the most memorable images of the Jazz Age.  Burra was fascinated by low-life, loved jazz and films, and, on his travels, frequented nightclubs and bars in New York, Paris and Marseilles in the early 1930s – from where he drew the inspiration for his paintings in that period.  His affectionate and celebratory depictions of black street culture in Harlem in the 1930s, and the nightlife of Boston in the early 1950s, led him to be described by his friend the American poet Conrad Aiken as the ‘best painter of the American Scene’.

Hop Pickers Who’ve Lost Their Mothers, 1924

Two early paintings in the exhibition show Burra’s characteristic style already fully developed by the early 1920s.  Hop Pickers Who’ve Lost Their Mothers 1924 (above) and Market Day, 1926 (below) were painted when Burra was just 19 and 21 years old respectively. The caption to the former work offers no explanation as to its strange title but its subject matter would probably have been familiar to Burra: each September whole families would go from the East End of London down to Kent to live in hoppers’ huts for most of September (Orwell observed the conditions they worked under in one of his essays).  What is interesting is that Burra portrays this group of hop-pickers as being from diverse ethnic backgrounds.  The art historian Andrew Causey wrote of Burra’s works demonstrating a ‘Whimanesque brotherhood of races and types’.

Market Day, 1926

Burra was a student at the Chelsea School of Art and Royal College of Art between 1921 and 1925, so Market Day is one of the first works painted after completing his studies.  This busy scene presents a multicultural view of a Mediterranean port – but the inspiration must have been drawn from films and novels since it was not until September 1927 that Burra made the first of several trips to the south of France, visiting the ports of Cassis, Marseilles and Toulon.

Market Day is full of detail, with two black sailors on shore leave carrying their ditty bags and being accosted by hip-jutting prostitutes. Simon Martin writes

It is hard to believe that such works were executed in watercolour, for Burra’s handling of the medium was so tight and the intensity of colour more akin to temura painting than the fluidity normally associated with watercolour.

Edward Burra in Toulon, 1931

Marriage à la Mode (1928–29) was loosely based on William Hogarth’s formal Baroque marriage portrait The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox (1729). Burra’s modern take on the subject is full of humorous details and visual double-entendres. For example, the putti holding a cornucopia of flowers in Hogarth’s painting are replaced by wingless flying children who water the bride and groom’s floral headpieces with an atomiser and a watering can.

Edward Burra: Marriage-a-la-mode, 1928

Another early work inspired by a metropolitan setting is, unusually, an oil painting.  In The Snack Bar (1930) a woman whose thoughts are elsewhere is frozen in the act of placing a sandwich between her brightly painted lips, while the man behind the counter suggestively slices an enlarged salami while  glancing in her direction.

The scene is set in the Continental Snack Bar in Shaftesbury Avenue in London, and the woman is probably a prostitute. According to Burra’s friend Clover de Pertinez, ‘Soho tarts were mostly French around 1930 and dressed and made up just like that’.  There is a suggestion of sexual violence as the barman slices a ham, his eyes on her rather than on the task in hand, but she is clearly off duty, caught in a moment of reflection and far from eroticised.

The Snack Bar, 1930

In Three Sailors at the Bar (1930), the trompe l’oeil painted frame suggests that this bar scene is a reflection in a mirror. The perspective of the tiled floor in the bar falls away vertiginously and the table in the foreground appears to be floating.  Two of the sailors have their backs to the viewer, giving the picture a voyeuristic feel that relates to the visual strategies of early cinema.

The cinema remained a great love and source of inspiration throughout Burra’s life.  As Graham-Dixon pointed out in his TV documentary, Burra’s sense of composition – with extreme close-ups, plunging, vertiginous perspectives, close cropping and heavily made-up faces with exaggerated expressions – was derived from the old silent movies.  Burra’s biographer, Jane Stevenson, suggests that rather like the novelist Christopher Isherwood, Burra was a ‘camera’ – a spectator with an extraordinary memory for vivid detail.

Harlem, 1934

Burra’s paintings of Harlem fall into two groups – street scenes and scenes of night-time entertainment. Harlem (1934) depicts the area’s daytime street life. Several men and women are shown in front of a row of brownstone tenements, with New York’s elevated railway visible in the background. On the street people linger at their doorsteps to smoke, talk and read newspapers.Burra painted his Harlem scenes after returning from New York, but he remembered details such as clothing and window signs with great clarity.

Burra visited New York, staying with the photographer Olivia Wyndham and her partner the black actress Edna Thomas on Seventh Avenue in Harlem from October to December 1933, and again in January 1934.  He wrote enthusiastic letters to friends about the exuberant jazz clubs he visited at night, while his images of Harlem street life during the day capture a quieter sense of nonchalance and friendly community. Burra wrote to his friend Barbara Ker-Seymer:

New York would drive you into a fit. Harlem is like Walham green gone crazy we do a little shopping on 116th St every morning there are about 10 Woolworths of all sorts also 40 cinemas & Apollo burlesk featuring Paris in Harlem which I am plotting to go to It must be seen to be believed…The food is delish 40000000 tons of hot dogs and hamburgers must be consumed in N.Y. daily.[sic]

In the next section, ‘The Danse Macabre’, the exhibition explores Burra’s fascination with the macabre and supernatural. He enjoyed watching horror movies and reading science-fiction novels by cult authors such as HP Lovecraft, and admired the ghoulish work of artists such as Francisco Goya and Hieronymus Bosch. In the 1930s Burra visited Spain and witnessed the Spanish Civil War first-hand, an experience which informed the violence of some of his paintings – for example, Beelzebub (c.1937–38).

Beelzebub, c.1937

In Spain in 1935, Burra had witnessed a church being burned down in the months before the Spanish Civil War. In this enormous watercolour (very powerful when seen in the gallery), a marauding throng with bloody weapons clashes violently in the ruins of a church. The devilish monster that goads them on is Beelzebub (literally ‘Lord of the Flies’), one of the seven princes of Hell.  The elongated figures influenced by Mannerist and Baroque art serve to heighten the drama of the scene.

This section also includes some works painted during the Second World War.  Burra did not address the conflict directly; instead, he painted images of soldier’s backs and ghoulish monsters to represent the terror of war.  A remarkable painting when encountered in the flesh is Blue Baby, Blitz over Britain (1941) in which the German air attack is represented as a monstrous blue bird-woman dominating the skies as figures cower or run for shelter.

Blue Baby, Blitz Over Britain, 1941

In September 1940 the Battle of Britain raged in the skies above Burra’s home in Rye.  He wrote to Paul Nash:

Oh theres bombs here messershmidts there and I dont know what all!!  The other evening I observed a parachute descending gracefully down. The whole place is an armed camp with crashing tanks roaring up & down the rd – so if anything’s a military objective all they have to do is throw a bomb & hit one of the Irish Fusileers [sic].

Two more fine wartime paintings on show are Ropes and Lorries (1942-43) and Soldiers’ Backs (1942–3).

Soldiers’ Backs, 1942 (detail)

During the Second World War large numbers of troops were stationed at Rye. Burra told Paul Nash of how: ‘Ive [sic] got some very turgid work, delightful sketches of the troops’.  Soldiers’ Backs, an image of soldiers climbing into the back of a lorry, dehumanizes the soldiers, who are seen from behind as they clamber into an army lorry. Their buttocks, shoulders and calves are emphasized, almost like medieval armour.  Another small wartime painting is Seaman Ashore, Greenock, 1944 (below).

The exhibition features a group of landscapes that Burra painted in the 1930s and 1940s. These include Landscape with Red Wheels (1937-9), Blasted Oak (1942), Landscape near Rye (c.1943–45), The Harbour, Hastings (1947), Cabbages, Springfield, Rye (c.1937) and The Cabbage Harvest (c.1943–45).

Landscape near Rye, 1943
The Harbour, Hastings, 1947
Cabbages, Springfield, Rye, c.1937

Cabbages, Springfield, Rye is a composition structured by ranks of trees, with the foreground depicting the cabbage patch in the family garden at Springfield.  Cabbage Harvest is a darker, wilder image with human figures stacking sacks of cabbages under a lowering sky.  Most of the cabbages are harvested, the colours are autumnal and there’s a sense of impending storm.

Cabbage Harvest, 1943-45

In another room are paintings made in the post-war period, including tow of the most striking that Burra created.  Silver Dollar Bar (c.1953)  was inspired by a visit to the eponymous bar in Boston – a locale he had painted before in Izzy Ort’s (1937).  Silver Dollar Bar was painted after another visit to the bar by Burra while he was staying with the American poet Conrad Aiken. According to Aiken’s wife Mary, Burra painted the scene from memory after he had returned home to England:

Oddly, though typical, Ed didn’t do the Silver Dollar Bar etc paintings until after he returned to England. What a memory – photographic – they couldn’t have been more ‘like’! Especially of the essence, which only Burra could do.  We’re lucky they exist since the bars themselves are gone forever.  I shall always miss them, and thus be more than grateful for the paintings, a lost juicy slice of life as it will never be lived again.

Silver Dollar Bar, 1953

Reviewing the exhibition  in The Observer when it was on at Pallant House, Rachel Cooke suggested that to understand Burra a good place to start is with  later painting,  The Straw Man (1963).  It’s a wonderful, dynamic composition, all intersecting diagonals, given a wall to itself at Nottingham.  Reproductions simply can’t compare to the experience of seeing the large original up close: it grabs you by the throat.  This is what Rachel Cooke had to say about it:

The Straw Man is purest essence of Burra: mysterious, antic, wild. Five flat-capped men – or is it six? – appear at first to be dancing, their calves bulging and stockinged, as if they had come from the ballet. Then you understand: these high steps are not celebratory. They are kicking some kind of mannequin. In the right-hand corner of the painting (right-hand corners are important with Burra; the novelist Anthony Powell recalled that this was where the artist began a painting, sweeping diagonally leftwards), a mother pushes a small boy away from the scene, her gesture confirmation, if it were needed, that this is a tale of violence, not joy.

The Straw Man, 1963

This remarkable watercolour relates to a painting by Francisco de Goya called The Straw Manikin (1791–2) in which four women toss a masked straw figure into the air with a blanket.  However, the dark menace of Burra’s large watercolour (created with two sheets of paper) is far removed from the Goya.  Burra has re-imagined Goya’s decorative scene in an urban wasteland where a group of flat-capped working-class men violently kick a straw dummy on an urban wasteland. Though the violence of the scene is metaphorical, the air of brooding menace is emphasised by details such as the train hurtling past on the bridge, and the indifferent figures standing alongside.

Francisco de Goya: TheStraw Manikin, 1791

In another room are displayed examples of Burra’s late landscapes.  In the last decade of his life Edward Burra travelled around the British Isles with his sister Anne to places such as Yorkshire, Dartmoor, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. On his return to his studio he would make preliminary drawings on sketchpads using pencil, crayons and felt-tip pens before commencing his enormous landscape watercolours.  The majestic scale of these late landscapes gives them an epic quality that is remarkable given his frail physical state at the end of his life.

Of the late landscapes, my outright favourites are  Near Whitby, Yorkshire and Valley and River, Northumberland (in the Tate collection), both painted in 1972. Neither are in the current exhibition, but there are several more fine examples of this strand in Burra’s work, most notably English Countryside (1965–7, top) and Connemara (1962-63), a superb, wild and rocky landscape that is in the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth House.

English Countryside is typical of many of these later landscapes in that, although there is little evidence of human beings in these scenes, Burra did not shy away from showing man’s impact on the landscape – depicting electricity pylons, tunnels, motorways and heavy goods vehicles.

Often, these are not pure landscape views in the traditional sense, being  imbued with a sense of supernatural activity.  The most startling example of this tendency here being Black Mountain, painted in 1968.

Black Mountain, 1968 (detail)

Against a distant view of the dark hulking mass of the mountain, Burra depicts a modern-day tractor and its driver tractor with blue cans of Shell diesel in the foreground.  But they are surrounded by mysterious, medieval-looking hooded figures, perhaps cowled monks, one of whom appears to be radiating from his eyes red bolts of electricity. ‘Visitors from the past, perhaps usually invisible to the living’, suggests Andrew Lambirth in the exhibition catalogue.

While Burra was alive, his late landscapes were seen by many art critics as something of a distraction from the main body of his work.  This began to change after his death in 1976, and by the time of the 1985 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, Andrew Causey was writing in a catalogue essay that ‘these late landscapes are one of the most important and undervalued aspects of his work’.

These landscapes are not conventional, picturesque views and there is sometimes a sinister edge to them, with dark brooding colours or unlikely choice of subject matter, such as a menacing petrol tanker or bulldozer. Burra’s late landscapes seem to reflect a return to his roots, but also a concern with the despoilation of the English countryside taking place around him. There are powerful paintings in which diggers, lorries and tractors appear as monsters ripping hungrily through the landscape. Commenting on the late landscapes, Jane Stevenson writes:

In the 1950s, he turned away from the human form to concentrate on landscapes of luminous serenity and weirdly powerful flower pieces. In the 1960s and 70s, he was one of the first artists to protest about the ravaging of the English countryside that went along with the creation of the new motorways, to perceive the real costs of you’ve-never-had-it-so-good. His interest in ecology as well as in the built landscape can be charted in letters and paintings from the end of the war onwards. He produced, for instance, a series of pictures in which the vast diggers and dumpers of the construction industry have morphed into carnivorous dinosaurs, snapping at each other and at the landscape with hostility and greed.

Writing in The Observer, Rachel Cooke concluded:

It is his landscapes, though, that for me are the best paintings in this show: transcendent and wonderfully modern – you see Hockney here, and Michael Andrews – even as he nods to the masters. In his last years, Burra toured Britain, chauffeured by his sister, Anne. He went to wild places – to Cornwall, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Moors – and he gawped and gawped. “It fascinated me to watch Edward when the car halted,” said his friend, Billy Chappell. “He might, I thought, have been staring at a blank wall, until I saw the intensity of his gaze.” Only when he got back home did he settle to work, reproducing the heather and the screes, but with curious dashes of his own: a road as blue as a river, a field as brightly coloured as an orange. And often, too, an invader or three: a crawling lorry, a demonic motorbike, a rapacious tractor, even an aeroplane, tiny in the sky, but indelibly black. Black Mountain (1968), English Countryside (1965-7) and An English Scene No 2 (1970) are unforgettable paintings: giant postcards from a man who could not ignore what was happening to England, even if it is sometimes hard to tell if her changing landscape was more a source of regret or delight. Oh, you must see this show. It is fascinating and beautiful – and we will not, perhaps, see its like again: the majority of these works are in private collections. Feast your eyes while you can.

Another section of the exhibition surveys the work that Burra did for the stage. Burra’s love of theatrical spectacle was exuberantly expressed in his depictions of music halls, and of actors and movie stars such as Mae West. He was also one of the greatest British designers for the stage in the twentieth century; he designed striking décor and costumes for several notable ballets and operas, as well as a set for the 1948 film A Piece of Cake.  Not only were Burra’s costume designs concerned with an understanding of fabric and movement, they also conveyed the personality of the individual character and had much in common with the people that appear in his watercolours of bars and street scenes. With his interest in depicting ordinary people in the streets, Burra was the perfect choice to design sets and costumes for Robert Helpmann’s wartime ballet The Miracle in the Gorbals.

Front cloth for Don Quixote, 1950

Burra’s front cloth for an operatic version of Don Quixote in 1950 was, I thought the most striking.  It depicts Quixote on his donkey heading out into the Spanish plains, with Sancho Panza behind. The Sadlers Wells choreographer Ninette de Valois recalled:

There stands out clearly a special memory: the magic front-cloth for Don Quixote. Rarely does there appear such force and spiritual strength in a stage set painting. Every line conveying purpose with a defiance that is highlighted; a fate framed in ennobling colours – whatever the outcome. We do not get such cloths today in the theatre.

The exhibition concludes with a display of Edward Burra’s paintbox and paints, alongside colour tests on opened envelopes and a shopping list.

It looks increasingly likely that Edward Burra will be accepted as one of the greatest British artists of the 2oth century. He is a unique figure, impossible to categorise, who charted his own highly individual course, never aligning himself with any particular movement or group. In the exhibition catalogue, Simon Martin gives this overall assessment of his significance:

With [his] baroque exuberance Burra does not neatly fit into the restrained and cerebral modernism of his contemporaries such as Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, John Piper or Graham Sutherland. He was not interested in good taste. If anything he embraced ‘bad’ taste: garish nightclub performers, sailors in search of a pick-up, tarts in a snack bar or dancing skeletons. He was unafraid of expressing a gay sensibility at a time when such personal honesty and an overtly camp aesthetic were by no means widely acceptable.  Decades before the contemporary artist Grayson Perry was exploring transvestism in his art, Burra was depicting men in drag and in his hilarious letters to friends adopting the alter egos of ‘Lady Ex Bureaux’, ‘Tottie’, ‘Gladys Dilly’, ‘Marguerite’ and ‘Madame Mata-Hari’.  He was not interested in what other people thought of him, but he was interested  in people,  in their foibles and eccentricities, but also in mankind’s dark side – to which he gave powerful expression during the Spanish Civil War and Second World War. His fascination with the macabre led to the creation of uncanny images of unsettling  power that are  as disquieting as his other images are humorous.

Acknowledging his importance internationally, Burra’s work was rightly included in the major survey of the art of the  Harlem  Renaissance, Rhapsodies in Black, and in time his paintings inspired by the Spanish Civil War will be viewed as an important contribution to the visual legacy of that conflict.  Likewise,  his ballet and opera designs will be celebrated as some of the most significant artistic contributions to modern set and costume design, while his late landscapes, scarred with motorways, pylons and construction, will come to be seen as a powerful and un-idealised record of man’s environmental impact on the great British landscape. […] Edward  Burra deserves to be considered as one of the greatest British artists of the twentieth century: utterly unique, and to be celebrated for his extraordinary individuality.

Burra hated all the talk around pictures and once, in a TV interview, got annoyed at the question, ‘So what does it all mean then?’  With a twinkle in his eye, Burra responded, ‘Nothing’.  He died in 1976 at the age of 72 having lived far longer than anyone could possibly have predicted, and leaving a far greater legacy than he was given credit for at the time.

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Edward Burra: Hastings to Harlem and back

Edward Burra: Hastings to Harlem and back

I confess that when I first encountered Edward Burra’s vibrant paintings of African-Americans languidly hanging out on the streets and in the the jazz clubs of Prohibition New York I assumed that Burra was black – a member of the Harlem Renaissance, perhaps.

I couldn’t have been more wrong, as I later discovered.  Burra was a white Englishman, the son of a rich lawyer who never needed to earn his living. Born in 1905, he had a dull, comfortable upbringing in Rye, and led a particularly closeted life since he had been crippled by a rare form of arthritis from an early age. The family lived in a handsome and substantial mansion with eight servants and 11 acres of garden.

Back in October on BBC 4, Andrew Graham-Dixon presented an excellent film on Edward Burra – ‘the most intriguing 20th century artist you might never have heard of’ in his words.  The film coincided with the first major retrospective of Burra’s work for 25 years at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.  Since I’m unlikely to get to Chichester before the exhibition closes, this post is by way of an appreciation of an artist whose work I have loved since I first encountered his paintings of Harlem night life.   Andrew Graham-Dixon’s film revealed to me aspects of Burra’s work of which I was unaware – most especially, the beautiful watercolours of English landscapes which he produced in the post-war years.

The Tea Shop, 1929

The unpromising elements of his early life were probably the key to Burra’s artistic trajectory – in the sense that he became determined to overcome the constraints of his class and physical condition through art, travel, music and the night life.  By the age of 15 Burra was off to art school in London. From there, over the next few decades, he travelled incessantly: to art hotspots such as Paris in the 1920s, Harlem in the 1930s and Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

There’s an early painting, In The Tea Shop (1929), in which Burra pokes fun at his home town.  In it, the prim local matrons are served by nubile waitresses, naked except for a tiny pinafore. The waitress in the foreground appears to be pouring coffee on the cloche hat of a lady customer, pop-eyed with shock.  Men in bowler hats look on in astonishment or hide behind their newspapers. Marriage a la mode painted a year earlier, as well as being a homage to Hogarth, is reminiscent of Stanley Spencer in its modelling and the intermingling of the earthly and the divine – and also seems to suggest a satirical slant on local mores.

Marriage a la mode, 1928

Another early painting inspired by a metropolitan rather than provincial setting is The Snack Bar (1930).  It’s an odd affair: a woman whose thoughts are elsewhere is frozen in the act of placing a sandwich between her brightly-painted lips, while the man behind the counter suggestively slices an enlarged salami while  glancing in her direction.

Burra’s biographer Jane Stevenson has written of this painting:

Two of his friends, in interview, pinpointed both the subject and the place: “Soho tarts were mostly French around 1930 and dressed and made up just like that.” The venue is the Continental Snack Bar in Shaftesbury Avenue, which “was very handy for ladies on the game to have a sit down and a cup of tea in their rest periods”. This image of a working girl stuffing food into her mouth is an extremely unusual approach to the representation of the female body in its time. Women, particularly prostitutes, were persistently eroticised, reified or abstracted in the art and imagery of the period. Burra enjoyed the rhetoric of “sin flaunting with a painted grin”, but that is not what he represents in this picture. Eliot’s typist could be slumped on the next stool, slurping tea and bolting a quick snack before returning to her afternoon’s stint in the office. Though he seems never to have been sexually attracted to women, Burra was more aware of them as people than most artists of his time, and less scared of them, for the simple reason that he shared his home life with his mother, two sisters and a nanny, all of whom he liked and understood.

The Snack Bar, 1930

In early paintings like this Burra comes across as a caricaturist and satirist in the style of Otto Dix or George Grosz, capturing and exaggerating every telling detail of the eccentric, bustling crowds in the cafés and nightclubs he frequented with the close friends he hade made at art school. The 1920s were, Burra observed, a time of great frivolity and fun – ‘we spent much of our time going to the cinema and reading Vogue magazine’.

That Burra relished travel and city nightlife is remarkable given that, as a result of his disability, he was subject to regular collapses (eventually diagnosed as being the result of a disease of the red blood cells) which meant that invariably ‘his basic state of being was akin to a machine operating on a nearly flat battery’ (Jane Stevenson).  His  lifelong struggle with rheumatoid arthritis and the debilitating blood disease meant that he was never able to use an easel in the conventional way. Instead he opted to sit, working mostly in unfashionable watercolour on thick paper laid flat on a table. But he created watercolours like no others:  idiosyncratic images teeming with the men and women who fascinated him: bohemians, sailors, prostitutes, lowlifes – those who live by night.  George Melly, a close friend, once expressed his wonder at the way that Burra’s crippled hand became ‘an unlikely instrument of so much precise beauty’.

Striptease -Harlem, 1934

Andrew Graham-Dixon’s film traced Burra’s life, from his native town of Rye to the jazz clubs of Prohibition New York, then to the battered landscapes of the Spanish Civil War and back to England during the Blitz. Graham-Dixon argued that Burra’s work deepened and matured as he experienced at first hand some of the most tragic events of the 20th  century. He painted a fascinating portrait of Burra – a master of the camp, throwaway phrase, who preferred to create art rather than talk about it, and who responded to most queries about his work with an ‘Oh Dearie, I never tell anyone anything…’ (thereby providing the title for the film).

Minuit

Simon Martin, the curator of the Pallant House exhibition, writes that although born into a solidly middle-class family,

Burra was always attracted to the less salubrious side of society. While some artists spend their careers trying to achieve a respectable social position, it seems that he spent years trying to escape from his. It is typical of Burra that when given money by his mother to treat his enlarged spleen he spent it instead on getting a tattoo of a fearsome Chinese mask on his left shoulder. Despite suffering from crippling arthritis throughout his life, he had a tenacious will, and often went on cosmopolitan excursions; his experience led him to produce some of the most remarkable watercolours by any British artist in the 2oth century.

Blues For Ruby Matrix, 1934

The cinema remained a great love – and source of inspiration – throughout his life.  As Graham-Dixon pointed out, Burra’s sense of composition – with extreme close-ups, plunging, vertiginous perspectives, close cropping and heavily made-up faces with exaggerated expressions – was derived from the old silent movies.  Burra’s biographer, Jane Stevenson, suggests that rather like the novelist Christopher Isherwood, Burra was a ‘camera’ – a spectator with an extraordinary memory for vivid detail.

The Common Stair

Burra was fascinated by modern urban life, whether dockside bars in Toulon or Marseille, or jazz dives and nightclubs in Harlem or Boston. He was British, yet, except for some Second World war paintings the evocative English landscapes of the post-war period, much of his work did not deal with Britain at all.  Burra was fascinated by the cheap glamour of dancers and prostitutes, in Mediterranean seaports or the boulevards of Montparnasse. Though it seems certain that Burra’s sensibility was gay, he never took a lover according to biographer Jane Stevenson, and it’s unlikely that he had any first-hand experience of brothels. Scenes such as the prostitutes depicted in The  Common Stair (1929) hanging up their garments to dry on a communal staircase were a combination of his memories of life on the streets of Toulon or Marseilles and elements drawn from the movies that he watched avidly: ‘ the picture is unmistakably Burra – a fusion of his ability to draw together disparate influences into his own distinctive world view’.

Three Sailors at the Bar, 1930

Burra embraced the unrespectable: scantily-clad nightclub performers, transvestites, sailors in search of a pick-up, tarts in a snack bar. Simon Martin writes:

He expressed a ‘gay’ sensibility at a time when such personal honesty and an overtly camp aesthetic were by no means widely acceptable. Decades before Grayson Perry explored transvestism in his art, Burra depicted men in drag and in his hilarious letters adopted the alter egos of ‘Lady Bureaux’ and ‘Madame Mata-Hari’.  He was not interested in what other people thought of him, but he was interested in people, in their foibles and eccentricities, and in the dark side of humanity.

Market Day, 1926

Crowded urban scenes first began to appear in Burra’s paintings in the late 192os, partly reflecting his love of cinema and his admiration for contemporary French poets such as Jules Romains, whose imagery was drawn from the streets and dance halls.  Market Day (1926) is a busy port scene with two black sailors on shore leave carrying their ditty bags and being accosted by hip-jutting prostitutes. Burra’s attention to detail ranges from the tonally matching jacket and tie worn by the sailor on the left, to the bowl of fruit carried on a woman’s head like a still life at the centre of the composition.

Saturday Market, 1932
Harlem, 1934
Dockside Cafe Marseilles

Simon Martin continues:

Burra’s Dockside Cafe Marseilles (1929) is a study in the coded language of sexual ambiguity, employing  high camp and innuendo. Although the cinematic view of cranes and the upper deck of a boat confirm the waterfront location, the characters within are not the macho sailors or dockworkers one might expect. Instead young man with his cap at a rakish angle, bejewelled ring and seemingly plucked eyebrows stands at the bar. The two barmaids have the exaggerated appearance of men in drag, while the body language of the black youth in a pink sweater, cropped trousers and ballet shoes who stands smoking to the right of the image suggests that this is a covert place for gay men to meet.

Izzy Orts, 1937

Izzy Orts depicts a popular bar and dance-hall once located at the docks in Boston. On visits to the city to stay with his friend, the writer Conrad Aiken, Burra was a frequent visitor to the bar, perhaps attracted by its lively and diverse clientele. Burra visited America several times and this picture is believed to have been painted during his second visit in 1937. The vibrant scene contains a number of strange characters, such as the disquieting blank-eyed sailor who faces the viewer. The sailor in the foreground on the left is a self-portrait of the artist.

Harlem, 1934

Edward Burra’s paintings of Harlem fall into two groups – street scenes and scenes of night-time entertainment. This painting, Harlem, depicts the area’s daytime street life. Several men and women are shown in front of a row of brownstone tenements, with New York’s elevated railway visible in the background. The street is shown as a place of social interaction: people linger on their doorsteps to smoke, talk and read newspapers. In contrast to the glamour and exuberance of Harlem nightlife, this painting presents a more downbeat scene of uncertain, possibly illicit, employment.

Harlem Theatre, 1933

Burra adored the glittering spectacles of dancing revues at the Folies-Bergere, in particular the African-American dancer and  jazz  singer Josephine Baker. But whilst many modern artists conflated Baker and the Revue negre with the ‘primitivism’ of African tribal sculpture, Simon Martin argues that Burra’s appreciation seems to have been rooted in a genuine love of modern black jazz music and visual culture, with no suggestion of any ‘primitivising’ tendency in his work. Indeed, Burra depicted a multi cultural society that has few parallels in the work of other artists. Martin continues:

At a time of widespread racist imagery in the media, his pictures  were conspicuous for their lack of prejudice and genuine warmth towards black people. The series of paintings inspired by street life in Harlem that he did following visits to New York in 1933 and 1934 stands out as a major contribution to the history of black visual representation and deserves to be seen in the context of the African-American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. With apparent warmth, they capture a sense of nonchalance: women smoking out of the window of apartment blocks, groups lingering on the steps, and men idling on street corners with  their  prohibition liquor in paper bags. These, and later images of Boston nightlife such as Silver Dollar Bar (1953),led the poet Conrad Aiken to describe Burra as ‘the best painter of the American scene’.

Silver Dollar Bar, 1953

In 1937, during his second visit to the USA to stay with Conrad Aiken, Burra joined him on a trip to Mexico. They took the train through the American South and on to Mexico City before travelling on to Cuernavaca to stay with Malcolm Lowry – then beginning to write Under the Volcano. Burra suffered from the heat and humidity and after two weeks, with dysentery and rheumatic feet, he returned to Boston alone in a state of collapse and needed to recuperate there for a month before returning to England.

Skeleton Party, 1956

Back in England Burra painted Mexican Church, its composition based on two postcards of churches he’d visited. Burra had been influenced particularly by the Mexican muralists and the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada with their depictions of lively skeletons. The Day of the Dead theme, central to Under the Volcano is echoed in Skeleton Party, completed nearly 20 years after the trip. The pyramid shapes on the horizon have been identified as slag heaps in an industrial landscape, rather than the twin peaks of Lowry’s Mexican volcanoes.

Although Burra will probably always be best known for his early images of city life, his painting continued to develop throughout his career.  Affected by the civil war in Spain, which  he had witnessed first-hand, and then the outbreak of world war, he painted scenes of the cruelty of war in the manner of  Goya, whom he greatly admired. Key pictures from this period are War in the Sun (1938) painted at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Soldier’s Backs (1942-3) and the remarkable Beelzebub (1937).   In the Second World War he created powerful images of monsters to represent the terror of the war, such as Blue Baby, Blitz over Britain (1941).

Beelzebub, 1937
Blue Baby, Blitz Over Britain, 1941

Reviewing the Pallant House exhibition in The Observer, Rachel Cooke suggested that to understand Burra a good place to start is with  later painting,  The Straw Man (1963), a painting that Pallant House has on long-term loan.  It’s a wonderful, dynamic composition, all intersecting diagonals.  This is what Rachel Cooke had to say about it:

The Straw Man is purest essence of Burra: mysterious, antic, wild. Five flat-capped men – or is it six? – appear at first to be dancing, their calves bulging and stockinged, as if they had come from the ballet. Then you understand: these high steps are not celebratory. They are kicking some kind of mannequin. In the right-hand corner of the painting (right-hand corners are important with Burra; the novelist Anthony Powell recalled that this was where the artist began a painting, sweeping diagonally leftwards), a mother pushes a small boy away from the scene, her gesture confirmation, if it were needed, that this is a tale of violence, not joy.

The Straw Man, 1963

For Simon Martin, Burra is ‘one of the most elusive British artists of the twentieth century’ – long overlooked and underrated.  But recently his reputation has grown dramatically: a record price for one of his works was paid at auction when Zoot Suits sold for £1.8m. That painting, made in 1948, records a London street scene after the arrival of the first Jamaican immigrants to Britain on the SS Windrush.

Zoot Suits, 1948

From the 1950s Burra began to concentrate on painting the English landscape, and from 1959 to his death in 1976 landscape became his main subject matter. At first glance these later landscape paintings can seem quite different from his other work. Whereas much of his earlier work is cluttered and full of detail, there is a great deal of space in the late landscapes. While the earlier paintings are full of eccentric characters and situations, the late landscapes often have few or no people in them.

Landscape near Rye, 1943

These landscapes are not conventional, picturesque views and there is sometimes a sinister edge to them, with dark brooding colours or unlikely choice of subject matter, such as a menacing petrol tanker or bulldozer. Burra’s late landscapes seem to reflect a return to his roots, but also a concern with the despoilation of the English countryside taking place around him. There are powerful paintings in which diggers, lorries and tractors appear as monsters ripping hungrily through the landscape. Commenting on the late landscapes, Jane Stevenson writes:

In the 1950s, he turned away from the human form to concentrate on landscapes of luminous serenity and weirdly powerful flower pieces. In the 1960s and 70s, he was one of the first artists to protest about the ravaging of the English countryside that went along with the creation of the new motorways, to perceive the real costs of you’ve-never-had-it-so-good. His interest in ecology as well as in the built landscape can be charted in letters and paintings from the end of the war onwards. He produced, for instance, a series of pictures in which the vast diggers and dumpers of the construction industry have morphed into carnivorous dinosaurs, snapping at each other and at the landscape with hostility and greed.

Picking a Quarrel, 1968

Writing in The Observer, Rachel Cooke concluded:

It is his landscapes, though, that for me are the best paintings in this show: transcendent and wonderfully modern – you see Hockney here, and Michael Andrews – even as he nods to the masters. In his last years, Burra toured Britain, chauffeured by his sister, Anne. He went to wild places – to Cornwall, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Moors – and he gawped and gawped. “It fascinated me to watch Edward when the car halted,” said his friend, Billy Chappell. “He might, I thought, have been staring at a blank wall, until I saw the intensity of his gaze.” Only when he got back home did he settle to work, reproducing the heather and the screes, but with curious dashes of his own: a road as blue as a river, a field as brightly coloured as an orange. And often, too, an invader or three: a crawling lorry, a demonic motorbike, a rapacious tractor, even an aeroplane, tiny in the sky, but indelibly black. Black Mountain (1968),English Countryside (1965-7) and An English Scene No 2 (1970) are unforgettable paintings: giant postcards from a man who could not ignore what was happening to England, even if it is sometimes hard to tell if her changing landscape was more a source of regret or delight. Oh, you must see this show. It is fascinating and beautiful – and we will not, perhaps, see its like again: the majority of these works are in private collections. Feast your eyes while you can.

An English Country Scene No 2, 1970

Blogger Simon Glassock writes of these late landscapes:

Ultimately Burra’s late landscapes are the most elegiac of his works and arguably his finest. The soft, pleasure-seeking crowds of the 1920s and early 1930s gave way to sombre but more finely crafted pieces informed by the dark middle decades of the twentieth century while the landscapes from the 1960s and 1970s might perhaps best be described as resigned. The eye is still strong but more readily strips away ephemera and the increasing absence of real people from Burra’s paintings reflects his own questioning answer to a question posed by one of his oldest friends, the dancer Billy Chappell. Chappell asked why Burra had been painting transparent people in some of his works: ‘Don’t you find as you get older, you start seeing through everything?’

English Countryside
Near Whitby, Yorkshire, 1972

Of these later landscapes, my outright favourites are  Near Whitby, Yorkshire and Valley and River, Northumberland (which is in the Tate collection). Both were painted in 1972.

Valley and River, Northumberland, 1972

It looks increasingly likely that Edward Burra will be accepted as one of the greatest British artists of the 2oth century. He is a unique figure who should be celebrated for the extraordinary vitality and individuality of his paintings. Burra hated all the talk around pictures and once, in a TV interview, got annoyed at the question, ‘So what does it all mean then?’  Burra, with a twinkle in his eye, responded, ‘Nothing’.  He died in 1976 at the age of 72 having lived far longer than anyone could possibly have predicted, and leaving a far greater legacy than he was given credit for at the time.

The Harbour, Hastings, 1947

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Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic

Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic

Today, under black skies and torrential rain, I finally got to the Tate to see Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic,  the exhibition that explores the impact of different black cultures from around the Atlantic on art from the early twentieth-century to today. The show takes its inspiration from Paul Gilroy’s influential book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness 1993. and features over 140 works by more than 60 artists.

Gilroy used the term ‘The Black Atlantic’ to describe the transmission of black cultures around the Atlantic, and the forms of cultural mixing that occurred as a result of transatlantic slavery and its legacy. Gilroy conceived of the Atlantic Ocean as a ‘continent in negative’, a network connecting Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe, tracing routes (real and imagined) across the Atlantic.

There is a great deal of truly outstanding art in this exhibition, though I think it must be said that the quality and interest of the work declines considerably the closer one comes to the present.

The exhibition is divided into seven chronological sections. We start with the European avant-garde and the influence of African sculpture on artists such as Picasso and Brancusi. Then across the Atlantic we explore the impact of European modernism on emerging African-American artists, particularly those of the Harlem Renaissance group. The exhibition traces the emergence of modernism in Latin America and Africa and returns to Europe at the height of the jazz age and the craze for ‘Negrophilia’. The final section examines current debates around post-Black Art and features contemporary artists such as Chris Ofili and Kara Walker.

An interest in African art in Europe was initially aroused through the objects brought back from the colonies by traders and explorers in the nineteenth-century. Dissatisfied with traditional artistic conventions Picasso set out to re-invent art in his own terms, inspired by the direct approach of non-European culture.  The mask-like face, wood-coloured body and hatched planes of Bust of a Woman (1909) reveal the influence of African carving. This faceting and breaking  up of form was a stepping-stone to Cubism.

Other artists influenced by non-Western culture were Modigliani, with his highly stylised heads and figures, and Constantin Brancusi,  who blended non-European sources with the traditional wood carvings of his native Romania.

European Modernism had a profound global influence. Artists from other continents encountered modern art-forms through travelling or studying in Europe. Tarsila do Amaral was taught by Cubist Fernande Léger    and was inspired by European artists’ uses of non-Western culture. On her return to South America she turned to the indigenous art of her own continent. Moro da Favella (1925) represents a Brazilian subject in a style that fuses a wide range of influences experienced on her transatlantic travels.

This approach was shared by fellow artists who became known as the Brazilian Antropofagist movement. One of these artists was Lasar Segall, a Lithuanian who emigrated to Brazil in the 1920s. Banana Plantation (1927) uses a visual language derived from Cubism and German Expressionism allied to aspects of native South American art.

In the United States, artists of African descent appropriated European modernism in order to express a new confidence and pride in the arts and cultures of Africa. One of the first artists to use this new visual language for depicting themes of African heritage was Aaron Douglas.  Aspiration (1936, top of page) contrasts images of  slavery with the vision of an uplifted and educated future for African Americans in the ‘city built on a hill’. I was particularly struck by examples of his collaboration with Langston Hughes for the magazine Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life (1926) in which he illustrated several beautiful poems by Hughes that utilise the blues form.

I got to leave this town
This lonesome place
Got to leave this town
‘Cause it’s a lonesome place
A po’, po’ boy can’t
Find a friendly face

Goin’ down to de river
Flowin’ deep an slow
Goin’ down to de river
Deep an slow –
‘Cause there ain’t no worries
Where de waters go

In 1934, Douglas was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project to paint a series of murals for the New York Public Library. His cycle, Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African Setting (1934), traces the experience of the African American, from slavery in the Southern States to emancipation in the modern city. Douglas said, “I refuse to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people.”

British artist Edward Burra was initially attracted to Harlem through his love of jazz music. The vibrancy of the area’s African-American culture is captured in Harlem (1934).

Another striking piece from this period is Sargent Johnson’s Forever Free, a monumental sculpture, in lacquered wood, of a proud and dignified mother protecting her children. Johnson was a prominent artist of Swedish, African American and Cherokee ancestry from the San Francisco Bay area who aimed to celebrate the beauty and dignity of the African American.

Pedro Figari was an artist from Uruguay who lived in Paris between 1925 and 1933 where his painting was influenced by Vuillard and Bonnard. A great deal of his work focuses on the Afro-Uruguayan community, and the memories of his youth in the district of Candombe.

The exhibition continues by tracing the influence of Négritude – the literary, artistic and political movement founded in 1930s Paris – on the visual arts of the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Négritude originated with a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris led by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire and the future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor. A rejection of colonial racism, Négritude aimed to reclaim the value of blackness and African culture. It was influenced by both Surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance.

With the advent of the Second World War, the ideas of Négritude spread as its leading figures left Paris for the Caribbean and Africa. New forms of modernism influenced by Négritude arose in these locations, including tendencies identified with creolisation in the Caribbean and the Natural Synthesis movement in Nigeria.

Creolisation reflected a blending of cultures and the acknowledgement by artists and writers that their cultural influences did not come solely from Africa. The concept of Natural Synthesis was conceived by the artist Uche Okeke following the independence of Nigeria in 1960. It proposed a fusion of European modernism with local African aesthetic influences, creating an artistic agenda for a nation reborn.

In Street to Mbari, the American artist Jacob Lawrence captures the flurry of a busy outdoor market in Nigeria.Lawrence first studied African art as a young man in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1960s he travelled to Nigeria, where he painted Street to Mbari.

Felix Idubor (1928-1991) was a Nigerian sculptor from Benin, part of a group of young artists in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s who raised awareness of the African artistic tradition at the time of decolonisation and independence. He is considered one of the pioneers of Nigerian contemporary art. The exhibition displays this photograph of his 1965 bas-relief for Independence House in Lagos.

The ‘Dissident Identities’ section of the exhibition deals with the counter-cultural politics of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Black art shifted focus to a concern with the specific social and political implications of slavery, segregation and oppression within societies such as the United States and Brazil. Highlighted here is the work of Romare Bearden who was involved in the struggle for Civil Rights. Bearden created a series of collages depicting scenes of African-American life that also commented on modernism and its use of African sculpture.

‘Reconstructing the Middle Passage’ examines how contemporary artists have revisited this historical trauma, throughn a process of imaginative recovery. This room reflects Paul Gilroy’s idea of the ship as both a symbol of the Black Atlantic and the mobile means by which it became linked. In Bird in Hand 2006 Ellen Gallagher explores a mythical ‘Black Atlantis’, a fictional underwater world populated by the descendents of pregnant slaves thrown overboard and whose unborn babies developed into a new marine life-form. Gallagher’s own identity as a black Irish-American is crucial to her interpretation of this myth which interweaves memories of oppression, migration and forgotten histories. The artist’s use of the traditional technique of scrimshaw, adds a sense of peeling back layers to this complex image.

The lightbox image, Western Union Series no. 1 (Cast No Shadow) 2007, by Isaac Julien is part of an installation work which investigates the wider context of diaspora, taking in latter day migrations from North Africa, Cuba and across the Caribbean. This meditative image also recalls the “door of no return” through which Africans once passed to board slave vessels: ‘We will miss you now that you are not with us’.

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Malcolm Lowry: an exhibition

I popped into the Bluecoat this afternoon to see the exhibition marking the centenary of Malcolm Lowry’s birth, Under the Volcano, which is in its last few days. I was glad I did – it’s an enormously interesting exhibition, featuring paintings inspired by Lowry’s work as well as memorabilia from Lowry’s Wirral and Liverpool upbringing collated by Colin Dilnot.

Malcolm Lowry (1909-57) was inspired by the Wirral of his childhood. His Merseyside youth informs his writing, and Liverpool, which he described as ‘that terrible city whose main street is the ocean’, continued to hold tremendous significance for him. Under The Volcano (1947) is considered one of the most poignant, poetic  and significant novels of the last century. Set in Mexico on the Day Of The Dead, the novel’s tragic resonance and insights into the struggle for creative expression have inspired many artists as well as writers. I read it decades ago – as a student – and only have a vague memory of the atmospherics – carnival noise in the streets and dark, alcohol stupefied interiors.  This exhibition has encouraged me to read it again.

The exhibition focusses on Lowry’s Merseyside origins and his international dimension. It reflects his continuing influence on artists across the creative spectrum – painters, filmmakers, choreographers and musicians, as well as writers and historians. I was impressed particularly with three impressive paintings by Edward Burra , a series by Julian Cooper and work by Adrian Henri.

Edward Burra

Skeleton Party

Extensive notes on this painting at the Tate

Edward Burra: Mexican Church

Extensive notes on this painting at the Tate

Notes on this painting at the Tate

Bluecoat programme notes:

Edward Burra (1905-1976) occupies a particular place in 20th century British art: represented in major collections yet remaining, like Malcolm Lowry, something of an outsider. He is best known for his satirical, often macabre paintings of 1920s and 1930s urban life, particularly its seedier side. He flirted with Surrealism and his allegorical works share some of its characteristics. Working mainly in watercolour, he imbued his art with ‘a feeling of tawdriness and the meretricious and yet, at the same time, (created) such convincing beauty’ (George Melly).

Despite constant ill health, Burra traveled widely, visiting Lowry in Cuernavaca in 1937, together with Lowry’s early mentor and their mutual friend, the American writer Conrad Aiken. On his return to England Surra painted Mexican Church, its composition based on two postcards of churches he’d visited, the cathedral at Taxco and Santa Catarina, Mexico City. Burra and Lowry did not get on, however both shared an interest in Mexican culture.

Burra was influenced particularly by the Mexican muralists and the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913), whose depictions of lively skeletons had a profound effect, contributing to his interest in representations of death. Under the Volcano’s Day of the Dead theme is echoed in Burra’s other two paintings shown here. Dancing Skeletons, painted after a visit to Spain, anticipates his Mexican journey and immersion in the iconography of death. In Skeleton Party, completed nearly 20 years later, Surra returns to this earlier theme. Whilst the pyramid shapes on the horizon have been identified as slag heaps in an industrial landscape, they could equally suggest the twin peaks of Lowry’s Mexican volcanoes.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

I love Edward Burra’s Harlem paintings. There’s a good selection of his paintings, including some of those, here.

Julian Cooper

Bluecoat programme notes:

The three paintings by Julian Cooper are from a series of seven completed in the 1980s entitled Under the Volcano. The novel was instrumental in the artist’s search to develop a kind of abstract painting using figurative methods, one capable of taking on contemporary experience in the way that Lowry’s novel does, with its intricate symbolism and a vivid representational surface. For Cooper the book ‘had everything. It was set in a landscape, it was outer narrative and inner narrative as well, it had lots of references to literature and cabbalistic religion – it had all the complexity of a Renaissance painting. ‘

Douglas Day’s biography of Lowry in particular, linking the writer’s life to his fiction, provided Cooper with a ‘layering of myth and reality. .. I see the novel now as quite prophetic in the way that its leading metaphor applies as much to an “economic growth” as to an alcohol addiction’.

Like Lowry’s writing, the paintings are meticulously detailed and create a real sense of place and time, an evocation of Mexico and the book’s setting. Each takes a particular episode from the book chosen for its self-sufficiency and symbolic power. They avoid being simply illustrative however, the structure and execution of the paintings echoing the complex layering of meaning found in Lowry’s masterpiece. Despite the specific references, the paintings are autonomous, requiring no prior knowledge of the book.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

Adrian Henri

Bluecoat programme notes:

In his series of paintings and drawings, Adrian Henri (1932-2000) sets the Mexican Day of the Dead in contemporary Liverpool, populating Hope Street with a crowd including artists and writers William Burroughs, Alien Ginsberg, Frida Kahlo, Ed Kienholz and Henri’s Liverpool painter friend, Sam Walsh. In the main painting shown here the white suited, pipe-smoking figure on the far left is Malcolm Lowry.

Henri’s partner Catherine Marcangeli describes his interest in the writer: ‘He went to see the Day of the Dead exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, a visit that had immediate echoes with Lowry. He bought lots of paper-lace patterns, sweets in the shapes of skulls, and all manner of folkloric artifacts … when he painted the Day of the Dead years later those echoes were also mixed with a host of other references, the most important and obvious one being his own earlier painting, Entry of Christ into Liverpool, of which The Day of the Dead, Hope Street is a kind of new version, except that the “friends and heroes” are dead ones here.’

There are other echoes, of a visit Henri made to a graveyard in Lorraine on the Day of the Toussaint (All Saints’ Day in France, when people take flowers to the graves of dead friends or relatives), and of the eerie and sinister masks at the Basle Carnival.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

Bluecoat programme notes:

For Cisco Jimenez, a native of Cuernavaca where Under the Volcano is set, Lowry’s book and his life continue to provide – 70 years after he stayed there – a barometer for measuring the expectations and failures of this Mexican town. For Jimenez the paradox portrayed in the novel repeats: the clash of the popular against the contemporary, tradition under threat from global changes and impositions, and the failure of utopianism (colonial utopias, the social experiments of the 1960s, the neoliberal policies in the 1990s).

Jimenez’s mixed media sculptures make playful reference to Lowry’s life: his drinking (Two Atoms Connected), golfing prowess (Necklace), and in Peddler the imagery and folkloric aspects of Under the Volcano, whilst AK47 Barroca is indicative of the artist’s concern with the contradictions and violence of the everyday in Mexico.

‘Cuemavaca is no longer what it used to be. What remains are tourism and opportunistic “cliches” of the quiet and colonial past – multiple thematic hotels and restaurants for wealthy foreigners and visitors from Mexico City, and real estate speculation. Nature has been covered over with tons of concrete, and the last old mansions with their majestic gardens are slowly falling down, giving way to massive condominiums (which we call “condemoniums”). You face such disaster every day’.

Echo review of the exhibition:

Malcolm Bradbury described Malcolm Lowry as having a “curious internationalism”.  That is what has perhaps led him to be less well known in his home city than he might have been, and is also what the Bluecoat has attempted to reflect in this new exhibition marking the centenary of his birth.  Those who do know of Lowry will probably have read his magnum opus, Under The Volcano. But few will be aware that the author of what has been described as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century was born the son of a Liverpool cotton broker in New Brighton.

In fact, there are many intriguing aspects to the man who was a writer, golfer, nomadic adventurer and inveterate drinker (alcohol caused his death at 47).  The Bluecoat’s two-month celebration of all things Lowry includes the publication of a new book, From The Mersey To The World, the screening of John Huston’s film Under The Volcano starring Albert Finney, and music written by poet Ian McMillan. At its heart, however, is this exhibition of artwork and film inspired by the writer and covering not simply his life in the Mexican town of Cuernavaca (where the novel is set on the Mexican Day of the Dead), but also his fascination with the Isle of Man, his time in New York and his spartan existence in Canada.

It turns out to be perhaps one of the most satisfying exhibitions held recently at the Bluecoat, mostly because while it features disparate artists, it has a pleasingly unified central theme – they all share a fascination with Lowry. Adrian Henri’s vibrant Day Of The Dead In Liverpool paintings sit alongside works from Julian Cooper’s Under The Volcano series, Cooper’s images redolent of Hockney or Hopper.

There are also a series of intricate Under The Volcano-themed prints by Chilean artist Jorge Martinez Garcia, while the Tate has loaned the gallery watercolours by Lowry contemporary Edward Burra which (despite his apparently disliking Lowry) also feature the skeletons so prevalent in day of the dead iconography.  And, most fascinatingly of all, there are never-before-seen telegrams, borrowed from Liverpool Record Office, charting the highs and lows of the globetrotting writer’s hectic life.

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