Burra, perhaps more so than any other artist, is a master of the strange and the sinister. Whilst this is overt in such masterpieces as Dancing Skeletons (1934, Tate) or Death and the Soldiers (1942-3, sold in these rooms, 10th December 2013, for £518,500), it is perhaps even more quietly unsettling in those works in which he shows us the uncanny in the everyday, where we least expect to encounter it. Burra's early work featured the seedy underside of life in Mediterranean cities, Harlem, New York and Boston, before focussing on the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Turning then to still-life and landscape, he produced some of the most original and almost surreal works within these traditional genres in the history of art.
At the centre of the work stands a bowl laden with luscious fruit, a typical feature of the still-life, favoured by artists from the Dutch Masters to Cézanne. But these are no ordinary apples and pears: plump and voluptuous, they glow with such a rich intensity that they appear over-ripe, even rotting. A single berry sits enticingly in the curve of a spoon, yet like the other fruit it is ever so slightly too vivid, even alarmingly so. Further evidence of an abundant harvest can be found in the nuts piled high before autumnal fields, however their impending destruction is implied by a pen-knife with such an exquisitely curved blade that it is positively menacing. Decay dominates: surrounding this strange bounty we find a cracked mug, tarnished cutlery, and a single broken-down boot. Most surreal of all are the pair of smiling teeth, lips pulled back in an unsettling grin to reveal chipped teeth: a typically bizarre Burra twist, this disembodied detail is both isolated yet all-too-human, reminding us of the artist's darkly satirical humour.
The setting of the still-life adds to the overarching sense of foreboding: it seems to sit on the edge of a deserted street, behind which looms the shadowy recesses of an empty building, under heavily clouded skies. The sense is of a town deserted, as its final inhabitant, an elusive and cloaked figure, slinks off in the distance. As Burra once commented to John Rothenstein: 'Everything looks menacing; I’m always expecting something calamitous to happen' (John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, exh. cat., Tate, London, 1973, p.35). Uniquely inventive as always, Burra has created a very modern vanitas, lacing a scene of apparent superabundance with unease.
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