Thursday, 29 December 2011

Edward Burra, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Just when you thought it might be safe to draw up those year-closing best-of lists, something comes along to stop you short. Such is the impact of this straightforward but cacophonously high-octane retrospective of the work of English artist Edward Burra at Chichester's Pallant House Gallery. Even before going into the gallery rooms proper there is an inkling of the quality beyond the doors with an oil painting, a trademark watercolour and a selection of drawings. As if reproducing the permanent collection in Burra's mind, these reflect his interests of the 1920-40s; the lines, shapes and composition of Picasso, Leger or Mogdiliani - the observance, wit and vivacity of Cocteau, Grosz or Dix.

But we are a little ahead of ourselves. Who was Edward Burra? Is it possible that one might be able to see clearly in him the contemporaneous impression of the 20th century's greatest artists, his peers, and yet know next to nothing about him? One of the many things this exhibition does well is to provide comprehensive, succinct backgrounds to the various periods in Burra's life, drawing a plumb line of chronology past not only his stellar influsences but also past the important domestic touchstones which are also apparent in his work. Stanley Spencer's range of corpulent style is persistently resonant and his friendship with the Paul Nash means that some of his landscapes are easily mistaken for those of the celebrated war artist.

The first room in the exhibition throws us straight into the interesting products of Burra's international travels that took him to 1920s France, 1930s New York and through Spain at the outbreak of their domestic fascism. Burra was not a political or a polemic artist though. Instead he chose to concentrate on the unseen life in the ports and nightclubs in these urban sumps producing dramatic, entertaining work that brims with a sense of energy and no little sense of the risqué. Men dance together in clubs and snigger at the one pair of women to occupy the centre of the composition - or are they men in drag? A bare composition Three Sailors In A Bar is decorous about its surreal elements (metaphysically impossible table tops, conflicting vanishing lines) and the whole thing has a spooky empty ring when set against the memory of its model, Manet's Bar At The Follies-Bergere.

Three Sailors is itself a fine picture but rather ordinary set against another composition with formal precedent and my favourite of the entire exhibition. The Strawman (1963, right) apparently shows a group of working class men beating up a figure made of straw. The figures are large and muscular; they act with concentration, aggression, malice. But they're also choreographed. The circle of their action is directly related to Matisse's The Dance (1909-10) and shows the fauvist sensibility in Burra's reaction to the day-to-day realism of the home county existence to which he perpetually returned.

The realism he conjured in his paintings is a the best answer to those who might suggest that an artist who has moved through places like Franco-controlled Spain should respond to the political situation. Consequently, one can see something of the stylised forms of Tamara de Lempicka in his urban snapshots (Snack Bar, Silver Dollar Bar) but with the aspirational gloss replaced by documentation - the absent minded woman eating a sandwich in the former, the harried barman in the latter. There is a sense of satire that creeps into some pictures - an image of Mae West in public is interchangeable with much that Georg Grosz fixed in his observation of the Weimar republic.

And so it goes on. Collage suddenly appears as his investigation of surrealism coincides with his friendship with Nash. Watercolour continues as his preferred medium in this period, huge virtuosically rendered pictures that lurch from realism to caricature, and all with the focus of the image and line pulling our eyes around the picture like his earlier games with perspective and lurching vanishing lines had done on the streets of Harlem or Marseille. Blitz Over Britain (1941, right) is a typically stiriking piece form this period.

Burra's sense of the basic landscape in his Nash/surrealist work persists in a series of dedicated landscapes. The landscapes become figures in the penultimate room of the exhibition which chart the bodies of Cornish residents and other working acquaintances in the early 1970s. Finally there is a room of his work for stage and screen, both set and costume design and a short film in which Burra gave a rare interview. There's so much admirable work packed into the available space one must applaud both the exhibitor and the artist for managing consistency and purpose. This is a pure exhibition, a show that goes in search of the next fine painting for its own sake, an example of fulfilling aesthetic thirst without having to resort to sensationalism of false thematics to make up the numbers. It is clear that Edward Burra is one of the most important-overlooked artists of the previous century and this exhibition will only fuel the appreciation and profile of his satisfying output.

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