Life worth every coloured moment

Today visited the Edward Burra exhibition at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester. In any other country, this would not be the first exhibition he had enjoyed for thirty five years. He would probably have his own museum -possibly on a hill top in Rye where he lived for the whole of his life.

A running strand through the commentary was Burra's 'sinister side': how many of the paintings are tinged with possible or implicit threat, as here, in 'The Straw Man', being kicked by a group of men from which a woman hurries her child away.

It is true this is a theme - the world carries implicit threat - especially in those places of "disreputable' life that Burra loved to paint: the streets of Harlem or in the back streets of Marseilles where, as in one picture, the 'cheap' prostitutes, relax in the sunlight, one attending to the nits in her hair, a simple occupational hazard.

But it felt, after a while. like the strain for a unifying chord in this disparate artist's oeuvre - even two women labouring to hold up sacks of cabbages as they gossiped appeared to one critic to be clinging to their cabbages with untoward fury!!! Much as I looked I could not see beyond clinging to the cabbages as an obstacle to the free range of gossipy delight!

I thought the jazz musician and art critic, George Melly, caught it beautifully when he wrote:

"His torturers, his bullies, his soldiers, some of his phantasmagoria are evil but many of his creatures are simply louche and disreputable. He loved naughtiness. He enjoyed depravity and bathed it in a glamorous eccentric light. He was acquainted with imps as well as demons."

And ordinary people -  as here three sailors relaxing in a French bar - caught in quiet celebratory light.

And saints, as here, Christ mocked, not as implicit threat but the practice of evil.

It is the only disappointment of this fabulous exhibition that none of the overtly religious paintings are included, as if this might embarrass the theme. Burra is as capable of painting light (or the hope of it) as dark and many of his paintings of places presumed disreputable are not only delighted in (to quote Melly) but suffused with a compassionate eye.

Burra, it struck me, was (as his sister described in a fragmentary film) in 'earnest' and though he took great steps in his way of life and his language to disguise it, it was fully resonant in his art.

He wants you see life in all its depth and complexity and that requires you to see it through multiple lens (and in colour not black and white). Thus, his great late landscapes - that both lament the changes wrought by 'progress' - the spirit of the place (in one) shattered by demonic tractors and trucks - and the celebration of that very same progress that enables him (battered by his life long arthritis) in the last years of his life to tour England and see the remotest of places, ironically made near!

We are all places of multiple contradiction - and only accepting this will help us navigate it. The artist's job is to make us see it and evade none of our darkest edges but neither ignore the heights to which we might aspire nor the commonplace joys and sorrows of life.

Nor ignore life's sheer strangeness and its unfathomed depths indeed Burra is perhaps a 'magical realist' in painting (and indeed I often think he rather belongs to a Spanish thought world than to an English one).

What struck me most about the fragmentary film (from which this is a still) were his eyes - seeing and (as he told a friend as he grew older) seeing through the world.


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