A watercolourist, draughtsman and printmaker, Edward Burra studied at Chelsea Polytechnic and the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1921-25. From the beginning, Burra worked chiefly in watercolour. In his early paintings of figures in landscapes, he used bright colours decoratively in a manner recalling the designs of Leon Bakst and others for the Russian Ballet and contemporary book illustration. However, between 1927 and 1931 he made a number of small oil paintings and a few collages, reminiscent of the work of the Berlin Dadaists, in 1929–30.
He had his first solo show at the Leicester Galleries in 1929. In 1931 he met in Rye the American poet Conrad Aiken, who shared Burra’s attraction to low-life subjects. Burra’s watercolour John Deth (1932) is based on Aiken’s poem of the same title and is a tongue-in-cheek satire, somewhat in the style of the German George Grosz, on gluttony, base sexuality, and corruption. John Deth typifies Burra’s dislike of moral (or any kind of) earnestness and his apparently easy-going acceptance of human weakness.
Encouraged by Paul Nash, a friend and neighbour at Rye, he joined in 1933 the avant-garde Unit One. In 1936 he showed at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, and in 1937 in Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Burra travelled widely, his paintings are very vibrant and active, which is thought to be a caused by his frequent illness. His favourite subjects were found in nightclubs, bars, and brothels. However, as he matured, he began focusing on political issues such as the Spanish Civil War and WWII. Later in his life, he painted mostly landscapes and still-lifes. From 1952, Burra would show almost biannually at the Lefevre Gallery, and in 1973 the Tate held a retrospective of his work. He was awarded CBE in 1971. A posthumous exhibition of his work was held at the Hayward Gallery in 1985.
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