- Edward Burra
- signed and dated 31/32
- watercolour and gouache
- 64.5 by 73cm.; 25½ by 28¾in.
William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, Andre Deutsch, London 1982, p.81, illustrated;
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: The Complete Catalogue, Oxford, 1985, no.81, illustrated;
Jane Stevenson, Edward Burra: Twentieth Century Eye, Jonathan Cape, London 2007, p.197.
'...I stares into every window hoping for a thrill...'
(Burra, letter to B. Ker-Seymer, 24th September 1927, quoted in W.Chappell (ed.), Well dearie! The Letters of Edward Burra, Gordon Fraser, London, 1985, pp.36-37).
Having first visited Josephine Baker's Paris at the age of 20 in 1925, Burra had dreamt of the South of France and on receiving the proceeds from his first major sale (for three paintings sold to Hugh Baker) at the age of 22, Burra immediately declared '...I think of going to Toulon Nice Valencure Cassis Cannes and Marsailles [sic]...' (quoted in Stevenson, op.cit., p.151). His desire was fulfilled in September 1927 when he first travelled to the South with his great friend Billy Chappell. He wrote with characteristic flair to Barbara Ker-Seymer from Cassis, '...our hotel is a dream of delight...everyone walks about with drawing books and canvasses the canvasses look a bit futurist you know you cant tell if it's the old manse at twilight or death at the festival...We are going to Marseilles on B's birthday you know us men...the guide book says [it] is a veritable ghetto of houses of ilfame my dear I stares into every window hoping for a thrill...' (Burra, letter to B. Ker-Seymer, 24th September 1927, quoted in W. Chappell (ed.), Well dearie! The Letters of Edawrd Burra, Gordon Fraser, London, 1985, pp.36-37).
Lured into the intoxicating world of bars, theatres, music halls and café cabarets, Burra's experiences in Paris and amongst the eclectic crowds in the South of France had a fundamental impact on the direction of his art in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He spent hours sitting in the street-side cafés and bars soaking up the atmosphere and observing the acute idiosyncracies of the passing crowds. Dated to 1931-32, Flamenco Dancer was painted at the height of his interest in the heady French bohemian underworld and although an exact location is unknown, the moonlit landscape in the background casting its eerie light into the drinking den is strongly evocative of the dockside cafés and 'houses of ilfame' in Marseilles and Toulon.
In 1931, the year the present work was begun, Burra had visited Paris in May where he had stayed in Pigalle then St Germain des Près rather than his usual night spots in Montparnasse and in August, he was in Toulon staying at the Hotel du Port et des Négociants spending much of his time at the Café de la Rade and Raymond's Bar. Jean Cocteau was also in the French town at the time and Bar Ker-Seymer famously photographed him smoking opium. The older artist had been a key influence and was crucial in encouraging Burra's surrealist sensibilities. Indeed, in comparison to earlier treatments on a similar theme such as Dockside Café, Marseilles (1929, Private Collection) and Three Sailors at a Bar (1930, Private Collection), the present work takes on a dreamlike quality - the plethora of minute yet quirky detail is combined with uncanny reflections in the mirrored sign in the left background whilst the hallucinatory flower formations in the centre achieve an intense new level of fantasy as the main flower heads have sprouted into a tricolour of bright red, white and blue electric light bulbs. The surreal ambiance is amplified by the enlarged brooding figure on the right; she distances the viewer from the action in the background as if it is a figment of her imagination whilst at the same time, she brings the viewer closer to the picture plane as she stands next to us, inviting us into the fray.
An exhilarating combination of actual and imagined realities, Flamenco Dancer fuses the kitsch glamour embodied by the voluptuous female dancer with the everyday grittiness of a quayside setting peopled with its mélange of insalubrious characters. The Rococco inspired lettering in the background mirror, Flores de Cuba, hints at the particular type of Cuban style music permeating the scene and although Burra did not actually visit Spain until 1933, the Latino subject is prophetic of his seminal series of works devoted to the Spanish Civil War executed in the late 1930s whilst the slinky protagonist provides the genesis for his depiction of female heroines such as Mae West (1934-35, Private Collection).