Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Still more to tell: Andrew Graham-Dixon on Edward Burra, BBC 4, Monday 24 October

Two and a bit cheers for “I Never tell Anybody Anything”, Andrew Graham-Dixon’s responsible presentation on Edward Burra last night on BBC 4. After the well plumbed depths of James Fox’s recent series on 20thc British painters, it was a considerable relief to sit through something that was engaging and informative, which didn’t appear to peddle wilful inaccuracies, and – best of all – that showed us stacks of paintings, without too much poncing about for the camera. Doctor Fox – watch and learn.

Jane Stevenson’s 2007 biography, Twentieth-Century Eye, must have given Graham-Dixon his story pretty much on a plate, and Stevenson was decently acknowledged and pulled in as a talking head. Though her book doesn’t illustrate a single piece of Burra’s work; is it a bit too easy to go for Burra as just one more glittering life-full of bohemian shenanigans? Boho-bio’s can be a frothy genre.

Edward Burra, 'Dandies', 1930

No, the work’s the thing, and Graham-Dixon gave us plenty of that, including the bonus of late landscapes and ballet designs. But even so, his commentary, cued maybe by Stevenson, was tempted into the too-frequent weakness of this sort of programme – art primarily as a window into biography, one-off interpretations that neatly tie the imagery, in purely symbolic terms, to traumatic personal life moments, etc. Agreed, some of the earlier work risked saying little and sliding into shallow social observation, but what about the later? Is horrors-of-the-war all we can make of it? The religious elements in the later work were acknowledged, but were mostly slid over. And the lone-furrow narrative swept past any consideration of the broader art context.

Burra exhibited in the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London. His involvement was cautious, but the debt to surrealism is clear in his work. And there are many other echoes in the paintings: Dix and Grosz in the early satirical stuff (he may have adored Paris, but he drew like a German, and owed little to cubism beyond a fondness for lino and woodgrain); Chas Laborde in the street observations; Douanier Rousseau in the flat naiveties; a bit of William Roberts in the stiff everyday figures and a bit of Wyndham Lewis in the abstracted allegorical figures; El Greco, Michael Ayrton – and even a hint of Dali – in the dramatically draped figures of the later work, and so on. This network of connections raises the Big Question of just what Burra’s art might have been about, beyond his own life story.

But Graham-Dixon wasn’t telling us. Not much, anyway. Perhaps because Burra himself famously and doggedly refused to comment. “What has meaning?” a frustrated interviewer asked Burra shortly before his death. “Nothing”, came the pat reply. Well, that’s all of us off the hook, then. But as John Rothenstein noted, Burra’s “constant theme” became “tragedy upon a more exalted level”, “the prevailing sense of the imminence of vast issues, and of vast catastrophes”. Christopher Neve quoted Burra as saying “I am always expecting something calamitous to happen”. Nigel Gosling saw in Burra a permanent state of “restrained terror”.  And even the low-life and cabaret pictures were less ‘thirties pop art than essentially anxious visions of the moral climate of Europe between the wars, whatever the particular moral angle.

What Burra painted was no less than the human condition. There is a good deal more to tell here, but the telling would require some hard analysis.

Burra at Pallant House, Chichester (includes the film interview)

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