‘Burra was the disciple of none, but like a magpie picked up what he fancied. But what he took he assimilated into an art that had become, by the mid-twenties one not remotely resembling that of anyone else: lucid, audacious, fantastic, and conveying often overtones of menace and corruption’ (J. Rothenstein, exhibition catalogue, Edward Burra, London, Tate Gallery, 1973, pp. 16-17).
‘Burra’s imaginative power was marked by grandly massive and audacious forms, even at a slight distance not discernable as watercolours, and his drawings by an exquisite precision which made, strangely, the more impressive the elements of sardonic humour. It is hardly surprising that he had no imitators: his combination of originality with complexity and power would make imitation a baffling undertaking’ (J. Rothenstein, quoted in W. Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A painter remembered by his friends, London, 1982, p. 49).
From his student years to the mid 1930s Burra’s foremost preoccupation was with the low-life scenes of Mediterranean ports; the brothels, music halls, and sailors café’s - fascinated by the cheap and the sordid. George Melly stated, ‘He loved naughtiness. He enjoyed depravity and bathed in the glamorous eccentric light’ (G. Melly, quoted in ibid., p. 11). Burra’s imagination was spurred by travel, with the artist frequenting European countries such as France and Spain, as well as travelling to further-afield places such as the United States and Mexico. One of his obsessions was Spain, drawn to its civilisation, culture and art. He taught himself Spanish and was known to often read Spanish literature and periodicals, which were strewn across his studio at Springfield in Rye. He admired the great Spanish painters El Greco, Goya, Francisco de Zurbarán as well as lesser know artists such as José Romano Gutiérrez-Solana, who depicted the darker and often more violent side of Spanish culture, such as bullfights, brothels, boxing fights, poor houses and executions. He visited Spain on a number of occasions first travelling there in 1933, where he met close friend John Aiken, and from there briefly visited Morocco. He recorded his observations mostly from memory, with often no, or very little preparatory studies.
Burra’s fondness for Spain can be seen in Spanish Dancer in a White Dress, 1934-35. Set in a bar or music hall, Burra captures two performers, a singer and her male counterpart who accompanies her on the guitar. Burra wrote to his fellow artist and friend Paul Nash, circa April 1933 from the Pension Carmona, Alhambra, expressing his love of these entertainment haunts: ‘Barcelona was lovely nothing but music halls and bars and cinemas … they did some lovely dancing with castanets however in daintie spanish costumes of black transparent net with diamonte embroidery (over the parts)’.
The colours in Spanish Dancer in a White Dress are resolutely evocative of Spain, with the luscious, rich green and blood-red set against an opulent gold backdrop, which brings a feeling of warmth and passion to the scene. Burra manipulates his composition, playing with shadow and light, to create a wonderfully visceral and dramatic scene. This is highlighted in the spotlight that encircles the performers and the jet-black shadow of the singer’s dress, which appears like some ominous presence behind her. Although glamorously dressed, the singer clothed in a white dress, with white fringing and red spots to the ruffled hemline of the skirt and the guitar player in a smart bow tie, their faces portray a sadness and melancholy. This may be reflective of the song they are performing, or as is so often the case with Burra, may also be indicative of a deeper, underlying menace or darkness.
It may also be suggestive of the increasingly unstable climate in Spain, in the run up to the Spanish Civil War that broke out in 1936, which informed much of Burra’s work in the late 1930s. Burra was known to speak on several occasions on the Spanish Civil War, struck by the cruelty, destruction, hatred and death there. Burra happened to be in Madrid just before the outbreak of war and was forced to cut his trip short. He spoke to John Rothenstein of a distressing incident that occurred during his time there: ‘Just before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War I happened to be in Madrid. One day I was lunching with some Spanish friends. Smoke kept blowing by the restaurant window. I asked where it came from. “Oh its nothing,” someone answered with a gesture of impatience, “its only a church being burnt”. That made me feel sick. It was terrifying: constant strikes, churches on fire, and pent-up hatred everywhere. Everyone knew that something appalling was about to happen’ (E. Burra, quoted in W. Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A painter remembered by his friends, London, 1982, p. 44).
What is evident in Spanish Dancer in a White Dress is Burra’s immense skill as a draughtsman, his sense of humour and his fondness for the strange and macabre, which is innate in all his work. There is a mystery and multi-layered facets to Burra’s work, which friend and contemporary John Banting attempted to describe: ‘They do not present one aspect but unfold like a book so that each day one reads another fresh chapter or finds an unnoticed detail’ (ibid., p. 55). John Aiken summarises: ‘He was a complete painter, but inimitable: his work will found no school. Nevertheless, he was to me one of the greatest and most original British painters of any century. Throughout his life he trained himself to a level of craftsmanship ideally matched with his unique creative imagination. At all times he knew exactly the effect he wanted and had the technical means to achieve it’ (ibid., p. 53).