British artist Edward Burra (1905-76) features surprisingly prominently in the publicity for the Royal Academy’s current exhibition Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940. A number of the reviews of the show feature Burra’s watercolour El Paseo (c.1938), a wonderfully stylised and slightly sinister snapshot of night-time street-life in the Mexican city. I haven’t yet seen the exhibition, but I’m already intrigued, as Burra and Mexico isn’t an association I’d consciously made before. How long was Burra in Mexico and what did he do there? Did he work with any of the Mexican muralists? (Is there another book here?)
My first port of call is Simon Martin’s monograph on Burra, my Book of the Week. There is one brief mention in Chapter 3 (‘The Danse Macabre: Burra’s Dark Side’) of Burra’s 1937 visit to Mexico, of which the main legacy seems to have been a fascination with Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ imagery, a powerful stimulus in later works such as Skeleton Party 1952-4.
Some further background reading leads me to conclude that the RA may have slightly overplayed Burra’s connection with Mexico. He visited by chance in May 1937 with his friends Conrad Aiken and Mary Hoover, who were travelling to Mexico from Boston so that Conrad could obtain a divorce and marry Mary. Burra became extremely ill with dysentery, and by July he was back in England, having spent time in Mexico City initially and then in Cuernavaca with Aiken’s friend Malcolm Lowry. That’s really it.
As Simon Martin notes, Burra’s eclectic, eccentric and exuberant paintings drew on a vast range of influences, from Renaissance and Baroque art to German 1920s Neue Sachlichkeit painting, Hollywood cinema, jazz music, French literature, avant-garde photography, and Parisian dance revues. His extraordinary and still far too little-known output incorporates street scenes, landscape and still-life paintings, stage designs and book illustrations. In the course of a 50-year career, Mexico was but a brief moment.
Lucy Myers, Managing Director
Edward Burra by Simon Martin, with contributions by Andrew Lambirth and Jane Stevenson. 2011. Hardback. 176 pages. 120 colour and 30 b&w illustrations. £35 / $70