Middle of the road wasn’t for him

    A reliable test of an artist’s standing in the pantheon of modern British art is to see if they accepted or declined an invitation to join the Royal Academy. The really important ones said no: Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Lucian Freud. The unimportant ones always agreed: Sydney Harpley, George Belcher, Ruskin Spear. Looking down the long and limp list of 20th-century Academicians, even the best-informed art-lovers will often find themselves wondering: who was that? During the entire heroic epoch of modern art — the tremendous age of Picasso, Matisse, Pollock — the Academy appeared to be stoutly defending the artistic rights of the great British nobody.

    In its grotesquely parochial way, it’s quite touching. Students of the famed British love of the underdog will in no way be surprised that Edward Le Bas was an Academician, but Barbara Hepworth was not. Thus, the fact that Edward Burra also refused the proffered cup marks him out immediately as an artist of substance: a wielder of clubs, rather than a joiner of them. What Burra’s famous refusal does not do is make clearer what his art was about or where we should locate him.

    Of all the notable eccentrics of 20th-century British painting, Burra is surely the most difficult to define or map or understand, as a gripping retrospective at the Pallant House Gallery, in Chichester, makes abundantly clear. Weirder than Spencer, scarier than Wyndham Lewis, better than Lowry, weightier than Gwen John, Burra was the supremely singular British one-off. I spent three hours at the show, carefully examining his excellently arranged output, and still departed feeling as if I had been trying to grasp gas.

    Yet there is nothing obviously difficult about him. Throughout his career, he was a figurative painter, and all the genres he worked in — cafe scenes, landscapes, still lifes, urban allegory — are established art genres with a familiar history.

    His preferred technique, watercolour, is a British speciality with a long and fine tradition behind it. On paper, Burra’s output ought to be graspable. But that’s on paper. In the flesh, it was, is and always will be thoroughly, relentlessly, unwaveringly, spectacularly discombobulating.

    Nothing here makes any simple sense. What could possibly unite the sleazy nocturnal depictions of jazz bars and strip clubs that he painted in Harlem as a young man with the enigmatic daytime celebrations of the British motorway system that he enjoyed as an old one? Yes, he painted with traditional watercolours, but the results don’t look like any watercolours anyone else has ever done. And what was he actually trying to express with them? The show answers none of those questions. I doubt that any show could. From the mysterious beginning of Burra’s story to its mysterious end, his art engineers the kind of irresistible relationship with the viewer’s imagination that a fridge magnet enjoys with a fridge.

    He was born in 1905, the son of a respectable county councillor in East Sussex. Judging by his sister’s accent in the entertaining but minimally helpful Burra film that is also playing at Pallant House, the family was jolly-hockey-sticks posh and country. Yet two things about Edward made him different. One was his chronic bad health. Sickly from childhood, he suffered from terrible arthritis and anaemia, and had to be home-educated. When you see him being interviewed in the scraps of film that have survived, his poor arthritic hands, so lumpy and seemingly useless, keep claiming your attention. It’s a wonder he could hold a brush with those twisted claws. Burra never needed to search far for the sense of strangeness that filled his art. All he ever had to do was look down.

    He was also, I believe, furtively gay. Or perhaps a transvestite, at a time when such predilections were heavily proscribed. None of the available literature on Burra (there really isn’t much; even my Wikipedia entry is longer than his) goes into his sexuality, but his entertaining appearances in those surviving film moments confront us with a camp and wilful eccentric turned out from a similar mould to the ones that produced Bacon or Maggi Hambling or George from Gilbert and George. Camp, yes, but also passively aggressive. Unmistakably British, true, but somehow terribly foreign.

    Burra never needed to search far for the sense of strangeness that filled his art

    His art, too, with its recurrent interest in sailors and bars, seems always to be whispering coded admissions of transgressive taste. With so many questions swirling around his pictures, and so few clear answers, it might have been a good idea here to commence with some instructive juvenilia. Instead, this helter-skelter ride of a retrospective plunges us straight into a wild selection of steamy late-night bars in Harlem and shady dockside hang-outs in the south of France, painted when Burra was in his twenties and hungry for sin.

    In a dockside cafe in Marseilles, a sexy black sailor in an outrageous pink polo neck puffs camply on a cigarette.

    The details are always telling in a Burra painting, and here it seems important that the sexy black matelot is not wearing socks; instead, he sports pale pink lace-ups of the sort more commonly preferred by ballet dancers.

    On a street corner in Harlem, a tall black dude in a zoot suit drapes himself across the entrance stairs of a neighbourhood brownstone and declares himself king of the street. Whatever it was that Burra was looking for on the dark edges of Harlem at night, the most important thing about it, you feel, was that it offered an alternative to East Sussex and his home town, Rye.

    All this is presented in a style of painting that is exceptionally difficult to describe. His art seems somehow suspended between comedy and tragedy. On one side of the bar, the Harlem figures bulge and wobble in a jolly seaside manner that leans towards the Beryl Cook; on the other side of the bar, they are stretched out and tortured, as if El Greco himself has had a go at them.

    The atmosphere, too, is uncertain. Are we celebrating new urban freedoms here? Or are we anxious about their implications? The only entirely obvious influence on Burra’s painting — the angry German art of George Grosz — set out specifically to accuse Weimar society of corruption. However extreme Grosz’s art became, its ambition was always to highlight Weimar’s decadence. With Burra, no such certainty exists. Nowhere in this display is it obvious what he is for and what he is against.

    The show has been arranged in thematic clusters that are also loosely chronological. Thus the lively Harlem bar scenes of the 1930s are followed by a set of dark wartime fantasies prompted by the civil war in Spain, then by events in Rye during the second world war. Burra was too sickly to become an official war artist, but that did not stop his weird imagination from conjuring up some of the most striking evocations of conflict in British art.

    Blue Baby, Blitz over Britain, from 1941, features a bright-blue monster flying over the Sussex countryside and terrorising the tiny grey humans fleeing below. What a peculiar image.

    It’s not just the fact that everything here is painted in such weirdly glowing water­colours that gives Burra’s output its extraterrestrial mood. Every picture seems also to be looking through and beyond normality.

    At the far end of the show, among the marvellous and hitherto underappreciated landscapes that he painted when he was in his seventies, the doubts are of a different order, but just as fierce.

    An empty motorway stretching across the bare moorland of Yorkshire is either very beautiful or very sinister. And as for the bumptious convoy of trucks snaking its way through some gentle English hills, is this an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine we are watching, or a rerun of Duel? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.