Edward Burra

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.

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10 Responses to Edward Burra

  1. Steve says:

    Bart…I’d love to see any one of these Burra paintings in person, but especially “Jon Death”, which you say is a small work. If it really is small, one would need to get nose-to-nose with it in order to see what’s really going on,…it’s very intricate. I don’t know how he painted, but in my mind’s eye I see him working at a table with the painting flat, leaning over the painting with a small brush, engrossed, lost in what he’s doing and going to do. A man keeping vigil, maintaining connections and making sure they don’t get away. No wonder he said: ” Tell them I’m busy.” He couldn’t stop for nonsense. Death is in each of these paintings, like in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal where death is a powerful visible player in the lives of every “personality.” But Burra gives it a strange new twist: Death as a drunk. Still powerful, but caught up in the delirium. Inexorable predictable death is scary , but debauched unreliable death is even scarier, capable of making a terrible mistake.

  2. johnk823 says:

    Death drawings and paintings have been around for a long time it seems. Guess we all have to deal with it at some point in time. The above pictures surely each have their own depictions.

    A couple I have always liked were done by Tiepolo. One being a drawing- “Death giving audience” in the National Gallery of Art, Rosenwell Collection and a painting- “St. Tecla interceding for plague-stricken Este which is an alterpiece, that almost gives you the feeling of being there and smelling the stench of death.

    It is very interesting, throughout the years how death has been depicted by various artists and the different messages that go along with those depictions. I’m just about finished with my Christ on the Cross painting and it carries its own message as well.

    I think death should be happy and joyful, if one has tried to live a full and as sinless life as possible. It is the final step which brings us closer to the Lord. Of course for some that may not necessarilly be the final stepping stone they will have to cross. I wonder?

  3. trueoutsider says:

    I find the bottom painting particularly marvelous. As life often echoes art, I saw a photograph today of Queen Elizabeth with a hat identical in shape to the red one the skeleton on the left is wearing. Here’s the only pic I could find of the Queen mother where she’s wearing a similar hat, but the one in the magazine photo was a near dead ringer (picture below). What I love so much about Burra is that he’s inventing so many forms using the Day of the Dead material so ubiquitous when one visits Mexico. The interweaving of all the skeletal parts is a masterpiece in and of itself, and then one travels back far into atmospheric space behind the figures to see the volcanic mountains that ring Mexico city transformed into pyramids. Burra is constantly inventive. Notice also how the skeletons form a pyramid themselves that are then echoed by the pyramids on the horizon. Burra is an astonishingly good artist. I wish I could find a Jon Death reproduction that shows all the cornucopic invention in the details of that scene, and how the colors virtually fluoresce. That watercolor has to be seen to be believed.

    How people swoon at the banal inventions of late Dali and entirely ignore the fantastically original inventions of Burra speaks volumes to me of how very few people actually look at paintings.

    Note the Mexican cathedral with its elaborately baroque woodcarving. I don’t know if any of you have visited one of these cathedrals. But the woodcarving is otherworldly, and Burra entirely reinvents his own version of it, as well as tile patterning on the floor and and having us look through a wooden lattice at the scene. Check the bizarre floral arrangement alongside Christ’s head and behind the hooded figure. And also note the painting peeking out on the right behind the wood carvings. A painting like this is just as rich and alive as any Turner I’ve seen. And Burra is a singular 20th century genius with watercolor. I can’t think of another watercolorist who comes close his level of originality in the last century.

  4. trueoutsider says:

    A couple more marvels by Burra from the mid-30s.


  5. trueoutsider says:

    I will continue to post more Burra marvels. This one is the Pool of Bethesda (John 5 1-13):

    Soldiers at Rye, 1941. Recall the German blitz of London began in 1940. There are a large number of war paintings, but this is the only one I can find online. I’m going to see if I can’t scan some of them from one of my Burra books:

  6. trueoutsider says:

    The Pool of Bethesda puts me somewhat in mind of this majestic painting by Michael Sweerts in the LA County Museum of Art. Ed Burra is the only 20th century painter whose work would have ever reminded me of this Sweerts painting. Sweerts was a contemporary of Rembrandt and is a painter who should also have much more art historical attention, in my opinion. This is Plague in an Ancient City, circa 1652-1654, oil on canvas, 64 x 57 inches

    It can be enlarged here but unfortunately starts to pixillate (at least on my screen):


  7. trueoutsider says:

    I’ll also throw in this other Sweerts from the Getty. Anyone visiting LA can see both Sweerts masterpieces.

  8. trueoutsider says:

    I also want to do a separate blog post on Stanley Spencer, but wanted to include one of his WWII paintings (Spencer served in WWI) in reference to Burra’s work. This is one of the works Spencer painted in the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, which regrettably I’ve never been able to visit. The chapel was commissioned in memory of Henry Willoughby Sandham, who died in 1919 as a result of the illness he contracted during the Macedonian campaign, and is based on Spencer’s own experiences during the First World War.

    The Resurrrection:

    It should also be kept in mind that while these works of staggering originality and figurative complexity were created in the first half of the twentieth century, they’re all but unknown and unrecognized as some of the greatest art the last century produced. This has everything to do with the legislation by American Art under the critical guidance of Greenberg and his acolytes that figurative art was passé and incapable of any kind of status for carrying serious artistic content.

    Instead serious artistic content became the province of work like this:

    and this:

    and this:

    The above are works by arguably the greatest American artists of the last half-century….. it’s hardly worth arguing really since it’s a foregone conclusion for every American art critic I’ve ever read. How one takes seriously anything else those critics have to say after reading their gibberish promoting the kind of boring dadaist nihilism shown above is an enduring question to me.

  9. trueoutsider says:

    Here’s an immortal sketch by a great American sculptor, who notably on the Charlie Rose show while I was watching compared himself to Michelangelo.

    One might contrast it with one of Michelangelo’s architectural drawings for the tomb of Pope Julius II.

  10. tomas belsky says:

    True outsider says it well. One side paints in the noblest tradition of artistic social revolutionary consciousness–Mayakowsky; the other is establishment sustaining avoidance of the artist’s responsibility to the times he/she lives in.
    One must be two to survive creatively: to remove ones foot from his own throat.

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