Bold, passionate and dramatic, The Entry into Jerusalem belongs to a remarkable series of biblical scenes executed by Burra at the beginning of the 1950s. The Christian iconography arose not so much as a sign of religious commitment but as a vehicle by which Burra could pass political comment and demonstrate his capabilities as a draughtsman. Ultimately Burra's attempts to achieve the former were frustrated – evident in the lack of any development from them – but in the latter Burra's achievement is unquestionable.
Reminiscent of a stage set, The Entry into Jerusalem reveals Burra's mastery of crowds and drama and his handling of both form and medium is impressively assured. The gesturing figures and vibrant colours, especially on such a scale, present a lively scene. The parting crowd creates a flow of movement towards the viewer, placing him firmly in the action unfolding as Christ approaches. Burra also heightens the intensity through his depiction of Christ, his large presence above the crowd possessive of an authority not readily associated with this man of the people, himself soon to be betrayed. Christ often assumes a role of power and authority in Burra's works of this period, such as The Expulsion of the Moneychangers (Private Collection), largely as a result of the abuse and betrayal Burra felt infected the political establishments, especially at the height of the Cold War. These paintings thus invoke the vengeful spirit of the Old Testament, rather than the loving and redeeming God of the New, and in doing so they reveal Burra's own particular view of Christianity.
The 1940s had seen an upsurge in religious painting, notably in the treatment of the crucifixion by Sutherland and Bacon, a context in which Burra's religious paintings can be understood. Yet while the likes of Bacon sought their 'punch' through raw, inward imagery, Burra's paintings are open and direct. They reveal a very personal idiom, which in the context of the present work is enlightened by knowledge of his travels to Spain and Mexico.
Burra visited both countries in the 1930s. Like many of his contemporaries, he found pre-revolutionary Spain unlike much of the rest of Europe in its society and landscape - an archaic land, yet to fully embrace the modernism so rapidly transforming the rest of the continent. So too in the richly complex history of Mexico did Burra find a juxtaposition of the old with the new. Both countries being bound by Catholicism, perhaps this was no more pronounced than in the relationship of the Church with wider society, where full congregations and fervent processions jostled alongside raucous bullfights and where popular brothels were furnished with statues of the Virgin. Burra responded with paintings such as Mexican Church (Tate Gallery, London) and Holy Week, Seville (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), which draw out the more sinister side of Catholicism, its arcane rites and pre-occupation with violence and death.
The Entry into Jerusalem, equally inspired by contemporary affairs if not more subtly, harks back to such experiences while also showing Burra's progression in the handling of medium and structure. Above all, the painting reveals Burra's remarkable ability to utilise Christian imagery to create works of irrefutable drama, colour and poetic imagination.
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