Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Phaidon
Press, Oxford, 1985, catalogue number 113 (illustrated in colour)
Burra’s visit to New York in 1934 was to be of enormous importance for his work, exposing him as it did not only to the huge cultural diversity of New York, and particularly Harlem, but also to the kind of American painting which was then little known in Europe.
Burra’s letters from New York tell us little about the exhibitions he may have been visiting, but during his stay, MOMA was showing the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the Whitney Museum was showing images of ‘Twentieth Century New York in Paintings and Prints’. The possibilities of the combination of these rigorously urban images with Burra’s own particular tastes for the life of the street can hardly be accidental, when one looks at the paintings he produced. Many of these paintings take their subjects from the bars and music halls of the city, in all its forms, and the stronger the elements of burlesque, the more they seem to have appealed.
The present painting is clearly set on a stage, with the edge of the orchestra pit and a footlight just in front of the musicians, resplendent in their huge-sleeved ‘Cuban’ shirts and coloured maracas, and forms part of the type of generic South American fantasy world of shows and films of the period, such as Fred Astaire’s hit film of 1933, Flying Down to Rio. However, even here, and probably unconsciously, Burra demonstrates his British roots, with the tall format and oblique view down onto the stage echoing the very different music hall painting of Walter Sickert.