The following year he returned to America. It is not certain how often he went to the United States. The Harlem studies are certainly the consequence of a visit to New York in 1934. However, on this visit, some three years later, he was staying with his friends Conrad and Mary Aiken. The party also travelled to Mexico and here Burra’s intransigence came near to ending him. Carousing with the Aikens and their host, Malcolm Lowry, would have challenged the constitution of a gladiator, and so sickly Burra had no chance. Stricken, he left Mexico to recuperate in the States before limping back to Britain.
These two ill-fated trips had an immediate and radical effect upon his work. From them came burning colours that startle, contrast and shriek and imagery that was turned inside out, and reshaped, to give Burra’s art a second birth. From the late 1930s, his art was marked by a graver note. In place of frivolous satire, tragedy became the prevailing theme. His imagery, though charged with menace, retained the bizarre, macabre humour of his earlier work.
Landscape with Red Wheels is dated 1937-1939 by Andrew Causey in his catalogue raisonné, although Professor Jane Stevenson has questioned this specification. It was certainly in existence by 1942 as it was shown at the Redfern Gallery but whether it pre- or post-dates the outbreak of war is perhaps uncertain. Nevertheless, it is one of the earliest examples of Burra’s return to landscape, which he had scarcely touched for ten years, and is a scene of decayed stone buildings, so forgotten that their purpose can no longer be discerned. Gnarled, leafless trees have taken root in the ancient structures, prising them apart. Four red wheels lean abandoned against the ruins. There is no distinction in the hue between these wheels and the red stones upon which they rest. This implies that they are also remnants of the same edifice. Amongst this deserted and chilling landscape, a solitary figure walks, hooded and cloaked in black.
The picture clearly illustrates the impact Spain and Mexico had on Burra. As with so many of the works executed in the years following the trips, the palette is burnt and blistered. The ruined buildings may have been inspired by the archeology of Cuernavaca. Burra had spent most of his time in Mexico in this city, which has a sizable Aztec pyramid and associated structures whose ruins still stand. As well as this, the rubble of contemporary buildings torn apart by modern warfare cannot have been far from his thoughts. Blown-up and burnt-out buildings affected him strongly. Up to that point his art had always been urban. He loved inner cities and ports, the complexities of civilisation. He was attracted to slums, to human life adapting and making-do in decayed, un-cared-for buildings, but as his wartime letters reveal, he passionately loathed bombed-out ruins.
In 1937 William Gaunt published Bandits in a Landscape, on painters from Caravaggio to Delacroix. Burra spent a great deal of time studying these artists and may well have owned a copy. One topic that Gaunt’s book treats extensively is the 18th century’s fascination with ruins. Gaunt suggests that the painters he studies were expressing a kind of despair at human achievement. The same may well be true of Burra. The Spanish Civil War horrified him, the outbreak of the Second World War confirmed his despair. William Chappell, a lifelong friend of the Artist, wrote of his personality: ‘… his nature was full of barriers and barricades. Those who were fairly intimate with him learnt never to attempt to overthrow them. Anything he felt strongly about such as his work – he would not discuss’ (William Chappell quoted in Angus Stewart, Edward Burra, (exh. cat.), Olympia Fine Art, London, 2001, p.3). In Burra’s work, however, he has left an autobiography. Burra’s paintings from the late 1930s to early 1950s are suffused with grief, terror and a struggle to surmount desolation. So, while Burra might have been tight-lipped, his brush spoke volumes.
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