Edward Burra spent his life trapped inside a paralysed body. For him, there were only two escapes from the physical pain that racked his every move. Painting and travel. Yet bizarrely this disabled, diffident, middle-class Englishman became one of the greatest painters of New York’s “Jazz Age”.
Edward Burra. The greatest painter of “Art Deco” America you have never heard of.
He remains today one of the acutest chroniclers of “Art Deco” New York. Particularly the bawdy nightlife of Harlem. He painted the city’s dark side. Its low life and its outsiders. His paintings illuminate the dark and murky corners of the seedy underbelly of a city battling to burst free from the moral girdle of prohibition. He remains the greatest painter of “Art Deco” America you have never heard of.
Born in 1909, Burra suffered from chronic arthritis. The pain never left him. He was fortunate that his father was a wealthy Sussex lawyer. This gave him the luxury of being able to devote his life to painting. Due to his illnesses, he was educated at home. In this environment, the imaginative and creative sides of his personality were more able to flourish. His family’s wealth meant that he never had to worry much about earning a living. From an early age, he was able to escape the physical limits of his body through his watercolours.
From youth, Burra loved to travel. It seemed to help him escape his physical troubles. After spending some time in Paris, Burra became irresistibly drawn to New York. For him, America had an attraction like no other in the world. Because he loved cinema and Jazz, he felt he knew the country even as he stepped off the gangplank.
“New York would drive you into a fit…everything here is more so…”
He arrived in 1933 to a city proliferating with bootleggers and “speakeasies”. He stayed not in upmarket Manhattan as advised but in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Harlem. It had a profound impact on him. He loved the style and attitude of black New Yorkers. The vibrancy and colour of the place are vividly portrayed in his pictures of Harlem street life. It was the birth of America’s first exuberantly confident black culture. Burra was on hand to record it all.
But It was New York by night that really captured Burras imagination. Burra himself delighted in alternative lifestyles, unorthodox and bizarre characters, and the more disreputable and Bohemian sides of life. Burra could barely walk let alone dance, but this may have been why he loved to paint the mass of heaving writhing bodies he found in Harlem’s nightclubs. “We went to the Savoy dance Hall the other night you would go mad. I’ve never in my life seen such a display… I’ve never seen such wonderful dancing.”
Yet the paintings inspired by these visits caused outrage in the USA. One night he travelled to the Apollo Theatre despite thinking he would not be allowed in. It produced a watercolour ” Striptease, Harlem” which depicted a raunchy burlesque show. Shockingly for this period, although the audience is depicted as predominantly black, the dancer is white. Considering it was produced at a time when racial tension (particularly in the US) was still rife, the work is extraordinarily progressive and echoes the paintings being created by African American artists during the Harlem Renaissance. At a time of widespread racist imagery in the media, his pictures were conspicuous for their lack of prejudice and genuine warmth towards black people.
While some artists spend their careers trying to achieve a respectable social position, Burra spent years trying to escape from his. With the beat of jazz, the intoxicating mix of sex, desire, fashion and money, Burra’s witty and bright designs takes us back in time, deep into the nightlife of Harlem at the height of its cultural renaissance. In its originality and eccentricity, it is a British artist’s unique take on a critical moment in American history. The American poet Conrad Aiken described Burra as ‘the best painter ever of the American scene’. High praise for this eccentric, little known Englishman, but he may just be right.
Read about one of the greatest Architectural “what ifs” in History. The most magnificent Art Deco skyscraper America NEVER built http://www.englishmanlovesamerica.com/new-yorks-greatest-art-deco-building/