Edward Burra: the paintings
EDWARD BURRA by Andrew Causey
From childhood I have vivid recollec- tions of a book of stories illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. Whether this was a present from some thoughtless aunt, I no longer recall. What I do remember is the sense of dread the illustrations induced; decadence has limited appeal to small, tree-climbing boys.
My early acquaintance with Burra's paintings produced a similar aversion which has taken years to overcome, even in part. In contrast to etchings such as Goya's Disasters of War, which proclaim their message through metaphysical as well as physical horror, I often sensed with Burra's work little more than theatricality and self-conscious wickedness. As with a good deal of Surrealist imagery, Burra at his worst might be described as 'shocking to bank managers'. Even his demonology is generally High Camp. Beelzebub, in a huge painting of that name, slips into a pose of sexual provocation which cries out for a speech balloon reading 'Hullo sailor'. Yet at his best Burra was a highly talented and original artist.
Burra belongs to a line of British artists who failed to find adequate vehicles for their vision from within the international Modernist movement. Here there is a close parallel with the case of Stanley Spencer. But, of the two, Burra was the more experimental and eclectic by a long way. This eclecticism has been researched with great care by Andrew Causey, a senior lecturer in the History of Art at Manchester University. In compiling what is probably a more or less complete cata- logue of known and surviving works, Mr Causey came up against problems posed by the late artist's vagueness and inaccurate memory. This makes the historian's deter- mination to get to the facts all the more admirable. Mr Causey's sense of purpose and accuracy are convincing, yet I was sometimes disappointed by the levels of analysis and insight. I did not meet Burra in life and do not altogether feel I have 'met' him in the pages of the author's text. Part of the problem is a style of writing which Americans call 'dense'. Ideas tend to come in thickets rather than in negotiable groves: As source material Burra was relying partly on coloured postcards and magazine illustra- tions, and in a picture like The Two Sisters— in which the woman with a tray was drawn from life, based on a male friend, while the sisters were taken from a postcard or cut-out illustration of the popular American Jewish entertainers, the Dolly Sisters — an element of disjunction is evident, caused by the disparity between the sources; Burra was beginning to find his way towards the mon- tage effects he was to achieve the following year.
Frequently the book's argument is made unnecessarily hard to follow by pieces of similar writing. Art historians, with hon- ourable exceptions, are regrettably prone, both in their lecturing and their writing, to pursue the driving monotone, unrelieved by either wit or anecdote. Perhaps the aim is to discourage the less-than-serious stu- dent, but such an intention would seem odd in a book offered to the general reader at £60.
To augment the text, there are 32 colour and over 500 black-and-white illustrations, mostly of Burra's work. Since the illustra- tions pursue a rough chronology, we can follow the artist's peregrinations in pursuit of his subject matter to places as diverse as Toulon, Marseilles, Paris, New York, Bar- celona, Mexico City, Ireland and the Lake District. Yet, throughout his life, Burra remained faithful to Rye, in East Sussex, as a base for his wanderings.
Andrew Causey also contributes two of the three introductory essays to the cata- logue of the current exhibition of Burra's paintings at the Hayward Gallery (till 29 September). The third essay is by the ubiquitous George Melly. Perhaps he was brought in to leaven Mr Causey's slightly ponderous dough? It appears sometimes that Messrs Melly and David Hockney, whose excellent stage designs are also currently on view at the Hayward, are the only two art-world figures with assured mass media appeal. Both are amusing and articulate but I must admit to greater enthusiasm for Melly the singer than for Melly the art critic.
Like Stanley Spencer, Burra painted relatively direct landscapes, as well as works with sexual or religious themes. At one time, in art circles, Spencer's land- scapes were the least esteemed aspect of his work. In Burra's case, also, I feel that his late landscapes — which are often austere and unobvious — and still-life paintings possibly provide the truest index of his artistic gifts. Paintings such as 'The Tunnel' and The Forth Bridge', which are on view at the Hayward, together with works such as 'Approaching Storm', 'Ebbw Vale', 'Rocks and Seaweed, Galway', 'View at Florence' and The Canal', which are unfortunately not to be seen, show Burra to have been one of the most inventive and beautiful exploiters of water- colour as a landscape medium since John Sell Cotman.
For too many people, within the art world as well as without, Burra's attraction lies almost entirely in the oddities of his subject matter rather than in the quality of his artistry. Such superficiality should no longer blind us to the nature of his gifts.