Edward Burra (1905-1976)
Edward Burra (1905-1976)

Blue Robed Figure Under a Tree

Edward Burra (1905-1976)
Blue Robed Figure Under a Tree
pencil, watercolour and gouache on paper, on two joined sheets
43½ x 30 in. (110.5 x 76.2 cm.)
Executed in 1937.
Lord and Lady Walston.
with Lefevre Gallery, (Alex Reid and Lefevre Ltd.), London, where purchased by the present owner in June 2002.

J. Rothenstein, Edward Burra, London, 1945, n.p., pl. 23.
J. Rothenstein, exhibition catalogue, Edward Burra, London, Tate Gallery, 1973, n.p., no. 58.
A. Causey, Edward Burra Complete Catalogue, Oxford, 1985, p. 201, no. 140, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Edward Burra 1905-1976, A Centenary Exhibition, London, Lefevre Fine Art Ltd., 2005, pp. 30-31, no. 11, illustrated.
S. Martin, exhibition catalogue, Edward Burra, Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, 2011, p. 140, no. 133, illustrated.

London, Redfern Gallery, Edward Burra, November - December 1942, no. 8.
London, Tate Gallery, Edward J. Burra, May - July 1973, no. 58.
London, Lefevre Fine Art Ltd., Edward Burra 1905-1976, A Centenary Exhibition, May - June 2005, no. 11.
Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, Edward Burra, October 2011 - February 2012, no. 133: this exhibition travelled to Nottingham, University of Nottingham, Djanogly Art Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, March - May 2012.

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Lot Essay

‘Everything looks menacing; I’m always expecting something calamitous to happen’ (Edward Burra)

From the early 1930s, Burra had been under the spell of Spanish culture, and he had studied with excitement the great Spanish painters, and the dramatic architecture and sculpture of the Baroque churches of Spain and Mexico which he photographed throughout 1935-36. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War shortly after affected him greatly, and it was abundantly clear (in the work he produced from that date onwards), that he was overwhelmed by the cruelty, destruction and brutality of this tragic conflict. The war became notable for the passion and political division it inspired, and for the many atrocities that occurred, on both sides. His earlier subjects were no longer adequate to express his agonized awareness of the dark tide of savagery that was transforming the world as he had known it.
In the present work, the artist presents a mysterious, hybrid creature, adorned in a cap and luminous blue cloak, standing immobile and sentinel in the midst of a mass of teeming vegetation. This strange, hallucinatory vision of nature not only marked Burra’s return to the depiction of the landscape for the first time in ten years, but embodied the various themes and influences that preoccupied the artist at this time. Having spent the first half of this year travelling in the USA and Mexico, before returning to his childhood home of Rye in Sussex, Burra has seemingly merged aspects of these contrasting landscapes in the present work to create a fantastical vision of immersive, overwhelming nature.
At the same time, the undeniable sense of disquiet that pervades this imagined landscape reflects the increasingly macabre and tragedy-tinged nature of Burra’s work at this time. As Spain, a country that Burra loved and frequently visited, descended into civil war, so Burra began including threatening, faceless bird-like figures, as well as Goya-esque hooded personages who lurked within his compositions, the frivolous satire of his earlier work turned into foreboding terror. In the same way that Europe stood on the brink of all-out violence, the same sense of foreboding anticipation characterises Blue Robed Figure Under a Tree, the protagonist seemingly watching and biding its time, perhaps waiting for an unseen victim amidst the dense undergrowth.

The figure in the centre of this work is a member of ‘La Guardia Civil’, a military force charged with police duties, recognisable by their distinctive blue uniform and three-cornered hat, which stood for a symbol of law and order.  Although the members of La Guardia were split almost equally in their support for Republicans and Nationalists, they still represented a sinister and menacing phenomenon and their presence generally evoked fear.  By selecting this subject as the focal point of the work, Burra has not indicated where his sympathies lie, but instead focused on the tragedy of the conflict. Although the figure is an ominous symbol, watching and waiting for the hidden victim, in its loneliness it symbolises the terrible sadness that Burra felt. The Guardia Civil seems burdened and lost in thought, a reflection of the tragedy that was unfolding. The echo of his profile is repeated twice in the bushes behind him and may be seen as a reflection of the losses he has personally experienced; the ghosts of the war.
This composition also celebrates Burra’s return to landscape painting after a long absence. This return was due in part to his association with British Surrealism, and in particular with his friend, Paul Nash. While he remained staunchly independent from the Surrealist group – ‘I didn’t like being told what to think, dearie’, he later explained to George Melly (E. Burra, quoted in J. Stevenson, Edward Burra: Twentieth-Century Eye, London, 2007,p. 141) – Burra had participated in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, and one of his works had been included in Alfred Barr’s seminal Fantastic Art Dada Surrealism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the same year. Though he disavowed a Surrealist identification, Burra was undoubtedly influenced by the work of this group – the strange juxtapositions of objects, dreamlike, automatic imagery, and its liberation of technique and style – having seen numerous pieces at first hand over the course of his frequent visits to Paris in the late 1920s and early 30s. With its bird-like figure, and strange, anthropomorphic vegetation, Blue Robed Figure Under a Tree shares similarities with the Surrealist visions of Max Ernst. The ‘bird folk’ that had populated Burra’s work since the early 1930s are akin to Ernst’s own Surrealist creatures. In addition, like Ernst’s luxuriant, anthropomorphic ‘jungle’ landscapes of the late 1930s, in the present work, nature itself appears as a potent, living force, the luxuriant tendrils and leaves creeping forward, and even the dead branches of the tree unfurling and writhing above the figure, threatening to engulf the entirety of the scene.
As Andrew Lambirth has written, Blue Robed Figure Under a Tree, ‘is really an image of rampant organic growth engulfing a calm sentinel figure in a forage cap and heavy cloak. Or in other words, a picture of the unquenchable power of nature. But the first impression of unchecked foliage is contradicted on closer study: the branches of the tree are bare and the twining foreground leafage, perhaps bracken but as large and luxuriant as banana leaves, is turning brown and shrivelling. This is an image of decay as much as anything, in which the blue-cloaked figure stares intently at something we are not allowed to witness. His preoccupation injects a faintly sinister air into this scene of inherent desolation’ (A. Lambirth, ‘Burra: The Landscape Option’, in exhibition catalogue, Edward Burra, Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, 2011- 2012, p. 140).

The combination of Burra’s interests in the late 1930s have been compellingly fused here in this seminal work from a highly-regarded period of his art. The viewer is presented with an apparently luxurious depiction of nature and yet, at the same time, we are propelled into a sinister game of cat and mouse taking place in this unnatural setting. The Guardia Civil and his unseen victim are playing out the reality of the conflict, two forces which condemn the land to destruction through the disease of civil war.

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