It’s completely inexplicable to me that one of the greatest British painters of the Twentieth Century is all but unknown to Americans. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he worked in watercolor rather than in oil paint. Given the ridiculousness of the art world’s value judgements it wouldn’t be surprising.
I’ve only once seen a Burra in the States when John Elderfield included a watercolor owned by MoMA in a drawing show he curated. This was probably a couple decades ago.
To begin with, here are some quotes from Jane Stevenson’s Edward Burra: Twentieth Century Eye.
As far as Burra was concerned, it was only painting that mattered. He gave his life to creating artworks of extraordinary authenticity and originality… Painting was the way he kept his nightmares at bay; the only reason why he didn’t drink himself into the grave at the double.
Burra: “I don’t know what all this personality has to do with it exactly but I suppose you have to have that…. You must have personalities.”
Interviewer: “Do you think that’s wrong?”
Burra: “I don’t know whether it’s wrong. But I was never really interested.”
The process by which experience and emotion turn into marks on paper is one which the painter him or herself cannot describe in words. Burra was no more able to answer a question such as “but what is it about?” than any other painter of his time–when Melvyn Bragg asked it of Francis Bacon, the latter said, “You tell me”; when John Rothenstein, who was writing a book on Burra at the time, asked it of his subject, he said, “Bring a pyschiatrist and we’ll find out.”
Burra was an observer, not a voyeur.
One important new friend Burra made in the 60s was Francis Bacon…. They had a good deal in common…. indifferent to comfort, painting as if their lives depended on it in a compost of junk and pinned-up postcards. Both were thoroughly uncompromising artists with a shared indifference to the fate of their paintings once these were complete. Burra was even more extreme in this regard than Bacon, who would at least attend important exhibitions of his own.
This is a small watercolor based on Jon Death, the Conrad Aiken poem. Aiken and Burra were friends who often traveled together.
Below are some of Burra’s works influenced by his stay in Mexico. He stayed with the great novelist Malcolm Lowry in 1937 in Cuernavaca, where Lowry was working on his masterpiece Under the Volcano. The Dancing Skeletons were painted after visiting Spain, prior to his Mexico journey. Burra traveled through Spain with Aiken and Lowry. Burra witnessed the Spanish Civil War there and he has a number of great paintings that depict his visions of it. I’ll try to find those.