Edward Burra: From Harlem to Hastings

Edward Burra's paintings are eccentric, varied and bleak. This most neglected of British artists is celebrated at the first retrospective in 25 years

After years of neglect (even Wikipedia has had only the briefest of entries on him), Edward Burra is undergoing something of a revival at the moment. A painting of West Indian immigrants to London, Zoot Suits of 1948, fetched an astonishing £2.1 million earlier this year, in a sale which saw other more modest works reach four times their estimate. Now, by coincidence as much as design, the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester has launched a major retrospective – the first in 25 years – of the man and his work, including his little-seen ballet and theatre designs.

It's an eye-opener. If Burra, who lived from 1905 to 1976, is known at all, it is for his vibrant, sexy and satirical depictions of the jazz age in all its glory, from the dancers at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, to the port bars of Marseilles and the street life of Harlem in its renaissance. And, gathered here in the opening room of the show (including Zoot Suits), they are wondrous to behold. Ridden with arthritis and a debilitating blood disease as a child (his parents were told he'd never reach 21; in fact he lived until he was 71), Burra took to art as a release and an opportunity to look out on the world. Trained at the Chelsea and the Royal Art schools, probably gay (given his penchant for depicting male posteriors) and part of a small group of like-minded friends, he embraced jazz, the cinema, gossip and entertainment with an enthusiasm which shows in the colours and the vitality of his scenes. Looking at them, and beyond the obvious influences of Leger and Grosz, one feels a sense above all of a man who was, in his love of popular culture and the brashness of the contemporary, a pop artist before his time.

All that changed when he visited Spain and witnessed, to his disbelief, the brutality of the Civil War. Quite suddenly his works move from irony and cheerful detachment to angry commitment. Man turns terrible, the crowds become frightening, the buildings become scarred and the bodies turn into clambering, stalking, glowering figures bereft of individuality or humanity.

What is extraordinary about these paintings is not just the energy in the composition but the fact that they were virtually all done in watercolour on paper, and on a substantial scale. It may have been Burra's arthritic joints which made him turn to this medium from early on. It made it painful for him to hold the paintbrush flexibly. Easier to add layer on layer of a more liquid medium, as Degas did with pastel when his eyes started to fail him. But there is something more to it than that. Given Burra's determination to paint, he could have resorted to oils or engraving or even pen and wash if he had so desired. There is an early example of an oil in the show done perfectly satisfactorily.

Having mastered watercolour, however, and become enraged in subject, Burra used all his knowledge of imagery and the emotional intensity of colour to express what he saw as man's inhumanity not just to man but to nature as well. To Grosz and Otto Dix are added the monstrous figures of Bosch, the mediaeval dances of death and the violence of Spanish baroque. War in the Sun of 1938 makes the renaissance architecture of Italy the background for modern guns, a tank and cloaked figures of destruction. Soldiers' Backs of 1942 has the bulging figures clambering over each other into the trucks, half automata and half men. Blue Baby, Blitz over Britain has a monstrous female half-bird savaging a landscape of terrified humans, while Skull in a Landscape of 1946 has a tin-helmeted skull reaching out with skeleton hands before a red-hued landscape. Mankind in this savage imagery is seen as rampant in its destructiveness.

The sense of anger and impending doom never quite left Burra, although his works became less openly ferocious. Pallant House calls a room of the post-war period A Sense of Unease but it's far more direct than that. Burra visits a troubled Ireland in the late 1940s, the kettle boiling over a fire of writhing flesh in It's All Burning Up and the crowd baying for blood, their flares blazing red figures in The Riot. In the later Straw Man of 1963, a group of men kick around a straw figure with a screaming red face as a woman hurries her child away. Even Burra's flower and bird pictures of the late 1950s and early 1960s have an anthropomorphic quality which is threatening.

In later life, Burra turned more and more to landscapes. To some, these are the most beautiful – and most serene – works of his career as he turns away from man to nature. They are certainly majestic, done back in Burra's Rye home after regular tours around the country, when he was driven by his sister. But they are also bleak in mood, as the vanishing point so beloved by the artist leads the eye through virtually treeless landscapes into infinity. Whenever man appears it is as a despoiler of the land, as in Picking a Quarrel of 1968, or as pale ghosts in Sugar Beet, East Anglia of 1973 or cowled black spirits in Black Mountain, from 1968. Burra has a particular hatred of Esso and Shell, whose emblems appear in his most aggressive works.

Asked by his closest friend, Billy Chappell, why he was painting people transparently at the end, Burra answered, "don't you find as you get older, you start seeing through people?" In one of his final works, from 1975, Landscape, Cornwall, with Figures and Tin Mine, he introduces himself – a doleful figure eating a Cornish pasty with crippled hands. By then it's hard not to feel that Burra was tiring of seeing through himself as well.

A remarkable and deeply unsettling exhibition. Most of the pictures on show are from private collections and, because they're fragile paintings on paper, they tend to be rarely shown. Some are shown here for the first time in public. Gathered together by Simon Martin, who curated the show, they make the case. Burra is not just a neglected artist but a major – and a profound – one.

Edward Burra, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (01243 774557) to 19 February

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