Back to Burra

A second visit to the Edward Burra exhibition at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester and a simple question from my companion as to which picture (or period) I preferred.

Today I plumped for the 30s pictures of the French cities,  shows, streets and bars and one in particular, that I cannot find an internet image for, 'The Nitpickers'.

Here a group of off-duty prostitutes gather in the street of a Marseilles or Toulon and the heavy framed woman in the foreground address one of the hazards of her life, scratching her head to expel (or find relief from) 'nits'. Behind a half-opened screen you see her bed, crumpled, waiting and a lamp above the doorway, presumably the archetypal 'red lamp'. Around her, resting, smoking, pondering nothing in particular, are other women and the narrow street stretches back and out towards the blue of the sky (and sea).

It is a picture of pause, of rest, of ordinariness. The prostitutes are neither exalted nor eroticized nor judged. This is what people do, have done, will do. The first response must be to see them in the round, the full range of who they are, and see them in disinterested but engaging compassion. This is what Edward Burra does, and reminds us that though there are many harsher hazards of 'being on the game' many of them are ordinary, inconvenient, shorn of condemnation (and of glamour).

It is unusual to think of Burra as a Christian painter - though his explicitly religious paintings are very powerful, they are small in number and like most of his work little commented upon by him - but I think of this painting (and many like them) as those works that T.S. Eliot would call implicitly Christian. They ask us to see the 'others' (of disapproved occupation or despised race) as human, ordinarily human, just like us, immersed in the multi-coloured pattern of good, evil and the uncanny, in which we all live and navigate our way.

I think there is a quiet assumption amongst the clean living of proper morals (as defined by themselves) that Jesus preferred the company of 'sinners' because he was on a mission to clean them up and make them like 'us', packed away in tidy moral boxes, but I expect that he preferred them because they were more honest, more able to recognize their own shadows, and more limited in projecting those shadows on others.

It was not the prostitutes who killed Christ or turned on his own cross to recognize Him, it was the 'good' citizens whose 'ideals' he had betrayed.


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