Edward Burra (book and exhibition review)
The exhibition ran at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from October 2011-Feb 2012
Simon Martin, with contributions from Andrew Lambirth and Jane Stevenson (Lund Humphries 2011)
Everyone loves mystery and secrets, trying to piece together strangers' stories from snatches of overheard conversations. The 'caught' moment has a long and distinguished history in art, from Vermeer and his shady interiors with women reading letters by open windows, to Degas and the frozen scenes in the dance studio. Artists have consistently selected scenes which intrigue and sometimes frighten the viewer; indeed, some artists actively develop a secret persona, thereby encouraging readings of their work that highlight obscure aspects of their characters. The English artist Edward Burra was highly selective about what he painted and almost never revealed the thinking behind his art, so much so, indeed, that the recent television documentary about him was entitled I Never Tell Anybody Anything.
For anyone who tries to make coherent sense of twentieth century English painting, Burra has long presented a problem. His simple biographical details distance him from almost all his contemporaries: no enormous struggle to earn a living through his work, as his parents were comfortably off and he lived with them all his life; no school life or student trauma (he was largely educated at home); no sexual indiscretions or scandals; and various steady, lifelong friendships. His extensive travels influenced his later works, but aside from his art, his life was singularly uneventful despite a lifelong struggle with ill-health. From childhood he suffered with arthritis, and it has been claimed that this explains his decision to work almost exclusively in watercolour, since holding the larger, heavy brushes required to paint in oil was too painful for him.
Burra left a body of work which remains largely unknown and unseen (apart from a few works in our national and provincial galleries), because most of his paintings are in private collections. Thus in many respects this exhibition and its accompanying book are a revelation, showcasing an artist of great power and integrity who painted what he wanted, free of pressure from patrons or collectors. Subject matter, medium and stylistic form were all individually manipulated by Burra to his own singular vision, with fascinating and moving results. The exhibition and book are full of wonderful images which capture the period in which they were produced. Some are enclosed, brooding studies of life's seamier side, full of sexual innuendo and dark humour. Others are expansive urban scenes which capture the emerging vitality of 1930's Harlem. Following Burra's distressing visit to Spain in 1936 and the outbreak of war in 1939, he produced a whole series of works which focus on the experience of war and its tragic implications for our humanity. Finally, towards the end of his career, he dispensed with human forms altogether, and produced powerful depictions of seemingly innocent flowers which resonate with menace and primeval mystery.
Before discussing some of the individual works, mention must be made of the medium--watercolour-- in which Burra mostly worked, for it is one of the astonishing aspects of the exhibition. English watercolours are usually characterised as subtle landscape affairs, with muted dynamism. Burra turns this on its head. His watercolours are so vibrant, with such intense layering of colour, that they do not seem like watercolours at all. The book correctly states 'watercolour on paper' next to most of the reproductions, but the sheer power of the colour becomes apparent only when one is confronted with the actual works. When reading the book, it is necessary to keep in mind that these luminous images are not oils. Burra was once asked how he achieved such effects in a conservative medium, to which he replied, enigmatically, " Spit and venom!"
Burra's early works are amongst his most familiar, for they portray the slightly bohemian existence which so attracted him. He lived his entire life in the Sussex town of Rye, in the family home with his mother and father, yet he never painted such homely subjects. His paintings of the twenties and thirties capture harbour-side bars in France, risque music halls with exotic dancers like Josephine Baker, and prostitutes both on and off duty. Later, Hollywood films would become important to Burra, and his 1935 painting of Mae West is a masterpiece which anticipates the way Pop-Art in the fifties would use the iconography of popular culture to make serious comments about the way these images invade our lives. Humour is never far from the surface in these works, and in Les Folies de Belleville (1928) we can see both his love of raffish vaudeville and his biting wit. This stage scene with a background of exotically-drawn, backlit lotus flowers and five dancing girls in various states of undress draws our eyes to the black male dancer wearing a centrally-placed dagger with a curved handle. The kneeling dancer to his left has one hand behind her head, the fingers apparently about to grasp the dagger. It is impossible to look at this painting without smiling, or even laughing out loud. The bright lights and the sexual playfulness of the scene suggest innocence and knowledge in a modern Garden of Eden.
In the mid thirties his work developed a much darker perspective. The war in Spain seemed to trigger a response which washed away the charming everyday triviality of the nightclub dancer and her underworld, to be replaced with images of an altogether more frightening nature. Devil figures such as Beelzebub now appear to orchestrate ritual butchery, old churches are crumbled to dust by overwhelming forces, and soldier's bodies become all buttocks and shoulders, devoid of any distinguishing individuality. One painting in particular, War in The Sun (1938), demonstrates Burra's abhorrence of what was happening in Spain, but also his growing belief that such terror and destruction was somehow inevitable. A Renaissance structure protected by seemingly indestructible metals bars is pitted by gunfire damage, while a No. 26 tank and an anti-aircraft gun occupy the foreground. However, the main figures are reminiscent of Spanish conquistadors, those soldiers from Spain's past who destroyed the Aztec and Inca civilisations: Burra links the current conflict to another in Spanish history, with terror and indiscriminate destruction as their common reference point. In the distance a group of modern soldiers, clambering onto an open truck, are about to disappear into the distance, presumably to begin destroying another sacred site. The most striking feature of this picture is its unrelenting horror: there is nowhere to hide, no comforting humanity or hope for the future. Burra has looked from Spain's present to its past and back again, and concluded that if this can happen in Spain, it could happen anywhere. Within a year of the painting's completion, Germany invaded Poland and plunged Europe into nearly six years of modern warfare and human suffering.
Unsurprisingly, as the war progressed Burra continued to explore the madness of conflict from his haven in Sussex. In Blue Baby: Blitz over Britain (1941), a vast bluebird woman, trailing black and red flames and smoke behind her, lowers over a desolate grey landscape in which faceless figures either run or cower for protection. In Skull in a Landscape (1946), he recalls a well-known etching from Otto Dix's cycle Der Krieg. In Dix's work a human skull sits within an indistinguishable setting, hair still clinging to the bone as worms crawl from the mouth and the eye sockets. The barren, empty landscape of Burra's interpretation glows red, as if the war-weary world has finally destroyed itself. Man has been stripped of his humanity: just a few bones and muscles remain, and a damaged helmet. Skeletal fingers, complete with black nails, ironically point the way. (Of course, a skeleton does not often have fingernails, but then neither does it have a nose nor a complete set of teeth-aspects which add to the image's grotesqueness.)
Burra's later work never lost this haunting quality of terror within seemingly familiar landscapes. Terrifying eyes peer out at us in Irish Street Scene (1948), while in It's All Boiling Up from the same year, those same eyes stare out of an enormous kettle upon a writhing mass of flames which could also be disjointed body parts. Shadowy priest-like figures disappear into the background, while the industrial workings of the cityscape belch poisonous black smoke into the air. As with many of Burra's finest paintings, the narrative is somewhat difficult to unravel, but it is easy to grasp the absence of a recognisable, benign human element with which we could identify, and to feel the terror that such a scene generates.
Burra's ill health continued throughout the fifties. There were regular stays in hospital for blood transfusions, and anaemia. However, despite these physical difficulties, he continued to produce work of amazing strength. The Straw Man (1963) is a large work which has Goya's Straw Manikin (1791-92) as its starting point, but soon leaves this influence behind. The artist George Shaw, writing in the Pallant House Gallery Magazine, describes how the painting evokes a sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shaw writes, "This is a painting ...of what happens when you miss the last bus, buy a drink in the Wrong Arms, look different in the same street, take a short cut." It is exactly that. We could be that straw man. Or a passenger on the distant train as it speeds over the bridge, looking out at the violent scene below. Or maybe even the small child being hurried along by his mother, an unspoken "don't look back" communicated by her hand on his head. In the far distance boats move up through the industrial landscape towards their destination, while men chatter on the river bank, oblivious to what is happening behind them.
In the mid fifties Burra returned to more traditional watercolour subjects with a series of still-life works. The one chosen for the exhibition, Tulips in a Yellow Pot (1955-57), would be the highlight if it were not in the company of so many other tremendous paintings. A distinctly sinister yellow vase is placed in a grey, anonymous space. Within it are positioned flowers of an unnatural brightness, while behind them are grey leaves reminiscent of Matisse cut-outs, but stripped of their colour. The flowers themselves display human qualities: the bright orange flower heads have piercing eyes which look directly at us, while the solitary yellow bloom in the centre screams the realisation that it is completely isolated from what surrounds it. It is hard to imagine a painting of an everyday subject which evokes such a sense of desolation and loneliness. The cut flowers are dying in their splendour: they can only fade away, and lose the vitality that they once had. Burra has captured the human condition in a vase.
That the work of Edward Burra has been largely ignored since his death is inarguable. The Tate and the Imperial War Museum have a few of his lesser works, and this has, perhaps, served to pigeonhole him as a minor figure in the imagination of art historians. While notable European and American artists were hurtling headlong towards abstraction and experimenting with a variety of media, here was a provincial English artist working with old-fashioned watercolour; what on earth could he possibly say about the modern world? This exhibition and the accompanying book amply demonstrate just how wrong such an assessment is. Burra's best work challenges, terrifies, informs and illuminates in equal measure, like all great art. I can only thank Simon Martin and his fellow book contributors, and the Pallant House Gallery, for bringing together the work of an artist who deserves to be placed among the finest that this country has produced.--Paul Flux
Copyright © Paul Flux 2012.
In 1995 the ground-breaking exhibition Brilliant! New Art from London opened at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The show included Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and several others who are now regarded as the most forward-looking artists of their generation. The youngest, at just twenty-four, was Bahamas-born Alessandro Raho, who had recently graduated from Goldsmiths College with a degree in Fine Art. Amongst the exuberant works by those who would become known as YBAs, Raho exhibited portraits reduced to their essential components: human figures placed in front of shaded white and grey backgrounds, staring out at the spectator. He embraced that most traditional subject, the portrait, and then stripped it of all the usual accompaniments that are used to carry the coded messages that we expect when looking at pictures of posed figures. His subjects are clothed in costumes that we inevitably attempt to imbue with meaning, but which remain enigmatic.
At the start of this study is a painting from 2011, Jessica. The subject is a young girl in a deep blue dress, obviously modern and in fashion. The girl's hands are positioned diagonally across the picture's centre plane, one resting just below her neck, the other on her thigh. As is typical of this artist, the pale grey background heightens the colour of the dress but does not enable us to place the girl within any environment other than that of the studio. She stands alone, without artifice or decoration, her quiet eyes engaging ours. It is a remarkable work, both for what it reveals and for what it keeps secret. The absence of cultural markers, other than the simple dress and painted finger nails, runs counter to the history of the portrait, in which location, costume and adornments provide the viewer with information to make sense of what they see. Here we have a single female figure, young, simply dressed, and posed alone before the artist: who reveals whom?
Raho's portraits are strangely photographic. They seem to inhabit a space between photorealism and painterly expertise and, as such, might be expected to be more consciously revealing. Yet it is what they leave out, what is missing, that makes these works so interesting. In portrait after portrait Raho repeats the same technique, which is both simple and extremely effective. Standing figures are placed in front of pale empty space. Plainly clothed, expressionless faces turn to confront the viewer, with most signifying detail absent. A prime example is the glorious portrait of one of our finest actresses, Dame Judi Dench, now in the National Portrait Gallery. It might be expected that Dench would be portrayed in some kind of acting role, as is usual for such subjects. However, Raho makes no such concessions: the actress is painted in her everyday clothes, well dressed but fairly casual, and there are no references to the theatre or her career. Raho is quoted elsewhere as saying that he tried to "trap something I saw in her while she waited in the main hall of the National Portrait Gallery, unaware of me." As with many of Raho's finest portraits, the simplicity and background starkness contribute to the powerful impact, since we are forced to engage not with the contemporary celebrity actress, but with the humanity behind the mask. Viewing the painting becomes one person silently communing with another, a remarkable experience which is achieved by reducing the content of the portait to its fundamentals: a solitary figure, in her ordinary clothes, in an undefined space which neither encloses nor detaches her from those who look at her. There are painters-- Rothko and Pollock spring to mind--whose work can sometimes be diminished when we try to describe it in words, and it is a compliment to Raho that the same can be said of some of his paintings.
Raho wears his influences lightly. We can identify Hockney in a swimming pool scene of 2006 and the Bahamian paintings from around the same time. The text points out the influence of Manet's The Fifer, perhaps the first portrait which isolated the subject within an indeterminate space. Most fascinating of all, however, are four landscapes, three from 2000, and the other from 2005. Of the 2000 paintings, two portray Eastbourne on the south coast, the third St Govan's Head in Pembroke. At first glance these pictures seem completely unlike the portraits, but on further consideration they are perfectly consistent. Like Whistler's tonal works, the landscapes are reduced to flat washes of shade and muted colour. Indeed, the final painting of Eastbourne could easily be one of Rothko's last paintings in which he abandoned colour altogether for blocks of grey, brown and cream, to create a bleak and completely unnerving effect. While these scenes can be identified by their titles as real places, what we see are mysterious landscapes from the darkest dreams: humanity has ceased to exist and, in the eerie dull light, there is only silence.
The 2005 work Battersea is similarly reminiscent of Whistler, with shimmering blue water reflecting an ethereal sky; not exactly how we normally imagine the centre of London and the site of the enormous disused power station. With the brighter light comes a hopefulness that is absent from the previous works. By paring down to the essential components, as in the portraits, Raho confronts us not with a visual representation of a familiar scene, but with a moment of frozen time and space. Rather than the summation of long hours of observation, this image captures a fraction of a second and, as such, is almost timeless.
The YBAs continue to provoke debate. The new Hirst exhibition (to be reviewed in the next edition of Albion) is already polarising opinion, showing that the controversy over what modern art should depict, how it is produced and for whom is still relevant and important. This new study of Alessandro Raho proves that modern artists can produce thoughtful, technically proficient paintings that engage the viewer while acknowledging their debt to the past. It is reassuring, perhaps, that Raho seems able to embrace the English landscape and portraiture traditions, while also carving out his own individual space and means of expression.--Paul Flux
Copyright © Paul Flux 2012.