Burra was intoxicated by sensuous experience at its most brilliant and exuberant and transfigured it with his feverish imagination. In this colourful painting Burra arranges his figures to capture the rhythms of an African-American band in New York. We share the off-centre, restricted view of an audience member. Burra exaggerates body types almost to the point of caricature but with affectionate humour and no moral judgment. Minute attention to costume, facial expression and skin tone creates an atmosphere of vibrant intensity. The blinding stage lights are reflected in the sousaphone player’s glasses. The baton-swinging conductor is exaggeratedly tall and thin. The solidly sultry songstress in pink gown and chic cropped hair puts her hands on her hips. An incongruous figure in an old-fashioned black hat and coat, ankle boots and white stockings, appears to be jovially accosting the conductor who turns to her. The narrative is puzzling, we are a voyeur on a hermetically sealed world.
Burra did not sketch on site but spent hours sitting in bars and cafes observing the action and recording it in his visual memory. Back at home, he painted in luminous watercolour with the paper flat on the table. Burra’s hands were disabled with chronic arthritis from adolescence so he found oil paint too heavy to use. He combined his memories with ideas from both fellow painters and movie paraphernalia, making no distinction between high art and the popular culture he loved.
Burra travelled to New York in October 1933 and landed in the centre of Harlem’s cultural scene staying with his friend Olivia Wyndham and her partner the African-American actress Edna Lloyd Thomas. Harlem attracted Burra as the home of jazz, he had collected jazz records since his student days and during the 1920s had enjoyed performances by Josephine Baker in Paris and the Blackbirds in London. It also represented an exhilarating escape from English society of the time. John Banting and Nancy Cunard had visited Harlem in 1932 to research her book Negro: An Anthology.
Burra caught the end of Prohibition which had made Harlem’s hundreds of speakeasies the centre of New York nightlife. Burra reveled in the atmosphere, enjoying the stylish and flamboyant culture of black New Yorkers during an era of cultural and political self-confidence for African-Americans, dubbed the Harlem Renaissance. In January, Burra moved to the Lower East Side, with its African-American and Latin American communities, to join his friend Frederick Ashton, who was choreographing the all-black cast of Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts.
Burra’s New York paintings fall into two groups, daytime street scenes and scenes of night-time entertainments: Spanish dancers, Cuban bands, striptease artistes, jazz bar singers, dancehalls such as the Savoy and drag-balls at the Theatrical Grill. For Burra, this trip marked a return to realism, in contrast to the semi-abstract experimental compositions he was making before his departure. Burra was at this time at the forefront of the avant-garde and he exhibited with Unit One at the Mayor Gallery after his return to England in April 1934.
© Alexandra MacGlip 2010