The Penguin Modern Painters: Edward Burra – John Rothenstein, 1945.
The Penguin Modern Painters series, edited by Sir Kenneth Clark, was launched in April 1944. Clark was the Director of the National Gallery. The author of Edward Burra, John Rothenstein, was Director of the Tate Gallery. Rothenstein was an atypically feisty gallery director. When fellow art historian Douglas Cooper tried to have him sacked, Rothenstein punched him in the face.
Burra was born in 1905 and had his first solo exhibition in London at the age of 24. He went on to establish an international reputation as a painter and set designer. He worked almost exclusively in watercolour and achieved the rich tones and dense, vivid colours which are prominent in many of his works by applying paint, layer upon layer, like a Lebanese bride putting on her makeup.
The theme of much of Burra’s early work was modern, urban life. His subjects were multicultural, encompassing all races, ages and sexualities. Between the wars he travelled to the US, France, Italy and Spain. He spent his time abroad absorbing the exotic situations in which he found himself and storing up memories that he turned into paintings when he returned home to the Sussex coast.
Going by the detail in many of his paintings he must have had an excellent memory. Dockside Café, Marseilles is a good example. This is not a conventional café and the young man in the magnificent pink sweater is wearing what appear to be ballet shoes. In contrast, the two barmaids look like stokers in drag. Sailors and bars – whether steamy, late-night gin-joints in Harlem or shady dockside dives in the south of France – are recurring themes in Burra’s work. Strangely, he never married.
In the 1930’s, Burra’s paintings became increasingly macabre and grotesque. He never considered himself a Surrealist, but his work was included in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. However, after the Second World War – especially from 1959 to his death in 1976 – landscape became his main subject matter.
Unlike Burra’s earlier work, which is crammed with detail, there is a lot of space in the later landscapes. But the themes that ran through the internal, urban scenes re-appear in many of them. Burra’s landscapes are not conventional, picturesque views and there is often a sinister edge to them, emphasized by dark, brooding colours.
The Harbour, Hastings links the two main periods of Burra’s work. The painting shows fishermen going about their daily routines; unloading crates of fish, winding in the nets, taking down sails. But the muscular figures echo his earlier, homoerotic urban scenes, especially the louche figure stretched out beside the boat. The dark clouds prefigure the looming skies that he painted into many of his later landscapes.
Ironically, The Penguin Modern Painters: Edward Burra, is the only landscape cover in the box. I’m grateful to The Perfect Library for re-introducing me to Burra’s work.