The British like to file their artists under genres: Gainsborough for portraits; Turner for seascapes; Ravilious, pastoral; Hamilton, pop; Riley, Op. So where to put Edward Burra, with his flashy polymorphic ways?
Pallant House Gallery, in the first show dedicated to the artist for 25 years, tackles this conundrum by bundling up pictures by subject, rather than chronology, although the two run roughly side by side. And so, in the first of four superbly curated rooms, we quickly quit Burra's native Sussex for the fleshpots of nightclubs in the South of France, where muscular sailors ("such buttocks, ma chèrie", he wrote to a friend) fondle women and eye each other. The palate is thick and pastel, and the surprise – the surprise Burra springs over and over again – is that the deep colour fields are achieved with watercolour.
There is something of the chalky flatness and monumental stillness of Italian frescos in decidedly secular scenes such as Le Bal or Snack Bar, in which the folds of finely sliced ham in the foreground refer overtly to the prostitute biting blankly on a sandwich at the counter.
Time and again Burra audaciously inverts the expected priorities of the picture. In Three Sailors at the Bar, he bisects the composition with a brass pole. In the room dedicated to landscape he is at it again, subverting the gentle contours of Landscape Near Rye (1934-35) by slotting the stripped skeleton of a ram between the handles of a plough in the foreground, a memento mori. In English Country Scene 2 (1970) the calming hills are upstaged by a convoy – lorry, motorbike, tanker. Burra's Rye is not the pretty cobbled playground of Henry James and E F Benson, but the graveyard of farm machinery in a yard where defunct tyres hang from dead trees like corpses.
A cable strains across the foreground of The Harbour, Hastings, with only a ribbon of water beyond the detritus of fishing. A colossal mallard and beady, beaky wading birds dominate the working harbour in Esso (1952-54), a rare occasion on which nature overshadows industrialisation.
Interviewed in the 1970s, Burra, part Eeyore, part Malvolio, lugubriously answers unconsciously naive questions with patience but puzzlement. This absorbing, ghostly conversation is screened in a side room, interspersed with images from paintings both in and excluded from this show. He likes the country. He likes London. Oh yes, there he is, hanging out with a youthful George Melly.
No wonder that such a playful intellect, with a feeling for landscape, the person, the macabre, for Hogar-thian social observation, could turn his hand to the stage too. High in a corner is his design for Miracle in the Gorbals, choreographed by Robert Helpmann, danced to music by Arthur Bliss in 1944, at the height of Clydeside shipbuilding. The front cloth shows a gigantic prow, stronger and prouder than any mythical beast. How you long for Burra to bring his all-seeing eye to that stricken community today.
So, where to file Edward Burra? Try U for Under-rated, alongside this show – Unmissable.
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