Edward Burra

Dancing Skeletons


Not on display

Edward Burra 1905–1976
Gouache and ink on paper
Support: 787 × 559 mm
frame: 890 × 680 × 50 mm
Purchased 1939

Display caption

Burra often combines the macabre with the humourous: these skeletons dance in tarts' hats, as if in a music hall. Though such works have been seen in terms of child-like fantasy, they also reveal the artist's interest in the satirical paintings of the German artist George Grosz. The vigour of the deathly dance is made chillingly absurd by the decay around the skeletons. The scene is full of references to death, not least the dangling figures silhouetted against the sky, which recall photographs of hanged rebels in Africa which Burra saw in the Belgian cultural magazine Variétés.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76

Dancing Skeletons 1934


Gouache and ink wash on paper 787 x 559 (31 x 22)

Incised into green paint ‘Ed Burra | 1934’ bottom right and inscribed in red watercolour ‘Ed. Burra | 1934’ bottom right

Purchased from the artist through the Matthiesen Gallery, London (Knapping Fund) 1939

Twentieth Century Watercolours, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1958 (43, reproduced p.53)
Edward Burra, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1973 (41, reproduced p.54);

T.W. Eade, ‘Tate Gallery Acquisitions’, Times, [undated presscutting 1939], p.20
Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Redfern Gallery, London 1942, p.5 (as Spectres)
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.84-6
John Rothestein, ‘Edward Burra as an Artist’, William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982, p.44
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, pp.51-3, reproduced [p.119], no.107
George Melly ‘Edward Burra’ in Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.13
Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Work of Edward Burra, 1919-1936: Context and Imagery’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 1988, p.440

John Read, ‘They Called it the Bribe of the Sugar-boiler’, Radio Times, 31 October 1969, p.38
Simon Wilson, British Art: From Holbein to the Present Day, London 1979, p.151 (in colour)
Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, 1981, p.237, fig.124 (2nd ed. 1994 in colour)
Art Line, vol.2, no.9, September 1985, p.23

The period 1933-4, in which both Dancing Skeletons and Harlem (Tate Gallery N05004) were made, was an important one in Edward Burra’s career. It saw the highpoint of his fantastic juxtapositions of objects and people which have been associated with a response to Parisian Surrealism. To this was added the powerful experience of his six-month stay in the USA (October 1933 - March 1934), centred in New York and Boston. During his absence, the book Unit One was completed and put into production under the editorship of Herbert Read. Burra had been one of the seven painters gathered by Paul Nash in early 1933 (the others being John Armstrong, John Bigge, Tristram Hillier, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth) to join two sculptors (Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore) and two architects (Wells Coats and Colin Lucas). Nash had announced the Unit in the Times (2 June 1933) as standing ‘for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit’,[1] while accommodating the individuality of the participants. Nash identified a wider purpose as a bulwark against a rising tide of nationalism;[2] David Mellor has observed that there was also a concern with financial insecurity and cultural conservatism within the British contemporary art scene.[3]

Burra’s position within Unit One was due to his friendship with Nash, and he was almost totally inactive.[4] Apart from the submission of his works for reproduction in the volume and exhibition from March 1934, he did not even contribute the short artist’s statement required of all the members for inclusion in Read’s book. Instead, and uniquely (although other artists had unacknowledged help from writer friends), Douglas Cooper provided an assessment of the work. In ‘phantasy’ and imagination he was placed in a tradition that included Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice in Wonderland, as ‘for him the form must inevitably remain subservient to the content. What he has learnt in this way, he has learnt from modern photographic technique from which he has profited considerably’.[5] Writing of the important John Deth, 1931 (Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester),[6] Cooper noted:

Even when he seems attracted by the macabre, as for example in “John Deth,” we find, on looking more closely, that this is nothing but a pure childhood phantasy. Unlike Goya, he is not deliberately seeking to terrify. There is no atmosphere of the “Witches’ Sabbath.” These ghoul-like creatures which people his canvases have the same significance for him as the phantastic beings half-man half-animal had for Hieronymous Bosch: they are something he believes in and is frightened of.[7]

It is not clear what Burra himself thought of this portrayal as a naive which overlooked the acerbic quality of his criticism and the relation of John Deth to the work of contemporary German artists such as George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Nevertheless, Cooper’s observations of the artist’s fascination with the macabre are born out in Burra’s resumption of the theme of death’s presence in Dancing Skeletons.

If there is something of the childhood fantasy, then it may be found in the exuberance of Dancing Skeletons. Calling it a memento mori, Causey has remarked on its difference from John Deth in that it shows the ‘return of the dead at night to remind the living of their mortality’.[8] The four skeletons dance frantically - one doing a can-can - in a night-time meadow lit by a moon with a crazed smile. Their extravagant headgear and marzipan colours lend a joyous air made macabre by their grins and their incomplete limbs (notable in the truncated arm of the plum coloured skeleton to the right). A reference to the medieval iconography of the snake wrapped around the leg of a figure of death - associated with the symbolism of the Fall - is seen in the form coiled around the shin of the blue skeleton. Unclaimed bones are bunched in a red chamber pot. On closer inspection, the hats tend to suggest that the pink and plum skeletons are female and the blue and white are male. This is, therefore, a dance with partners given a certain mocking formality through the chivalrous pose of the blue skeleton.

A darker and more serious aspect lurks within Burra’s deliberate echoing of the decay of the flesh in the surrounding landscape. The red brick wall in the foreground has crumbled in the dancers’ path. In the background, the trees crowd behind a classical arch and wall to the right (and provide a home for an amusing blue bird), and contrast with the ruined building and the barren land to the left. There three cadavers in increasing states of decay hang from a gallows. This image conflates the ghastly reality of current events - as shown in the photograph in Variétés of hanged rebels in Africa[9] - with the moralising imagery of medieval frescos in the wake of the Black Death, such as Traini’s at the Camposanto in Pisa. The state of desolation in Burra’s image is only relieved by the fountain in a niche and an isolated and enigmatic figure standing in the moonlight; otherwise, the background suggests the disintegration of civilisation.

For Burra, skeletons could be both agents of amusement and - however disguised - of morality. This position has been linked to the artist’s friendship with the American poet Conrad Aiken, to whom he was introduced by Nash.[10] Burra had made his 1931 painting John Deth as an illustration to a de luxe edition of Aiken’s poem of that title.[11] Neither the edition nor the proposed cycle of illustrations was ever realised. Nevertheless, Dancing Skeletons, 1934 may be seen as a coda to the earlier image. As Causey has noted, the poem was indebted to Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death while Burra’s 1931 painting was more comparable to Grosz tumultuous images.[12] Both may be relevant to the Tate’s painting, to which other comparisons - from the torture frescos of the Baroque painter Sanchez Cotan to the skeleton dance of Walt Disney’s cartoon Silly Symphony, 1929 - have been made.[13] Burra travelled to Granada in Spain (where he saw Cotan’s work) in April 1933 with Aiken (and Malcolm Lowry), and spent Christmas with the poet in Boston, so that it may be that Dancing Skeletons emerged from their renewed collaboration.

Something of the ferocity of the image is conveyed in its technique. Dancing Skeletons is an example of Burra’s enlargement of his preferred medium of watercolour to a size more usually associated with oils. This is matched by the complexity of the handling. As was his practice, most of the forms were laid out in pencil; this remains visible, for instance, in the outline of the skeletons themselves. They are treated in dry colours, which may be gouache, and given exaggerated highlights which are reminiscent of Disney cartoons. This contrasts with the loosely washed green ground against which they are set. A blurring of details - achieved by applying water to disperse the paint - lends the grins of the skeletons and the moon a further sinister appeal. The details of the brickwork were achieved by incision into the paint surface to reveal the lighter colour of the paper; even one of the signatures was made in this way. The conjunction of techniques and the overall brightness of the colouring is typical of Burra’s painting of the preceding five years, but subsequent works have more in common with the darker quality and portentous nature of the background.

Burra did not exhibit Dancing Skeletons immediately. It was destined for his solo exhibition at the Matthiesen Gallery in 1938, but this was abandoned at a late stage. Nevertheless, Dancing Skeletons and Harlem were purchased for the Tate Gallery by John Rothenstein, the newly appointed director who had been at the Royal College with the artist.

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Unit One, London 1934, p.10
[2] Ibid. p.11
[3] David Mellor, ‘British Art in the 1930s: Some Economic, Political and Cultural Structures’ in Frank Gloversmith ed., Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View of the 1930s, Brighton 1980, pp.188-90
[4] Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Work of Edward Burra, 1919-1936: Context and Imagery’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 1988, pp.282-5
[5] Douglas Cooper, ‘Edward Burra’, Unit One, London 1934, p.59
[6] Reproduced in Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, [p.112], no.72
[7] Cooper 1934, p.59
[8] Causey 1985, p.51
[9] Ibid., p.52
[10] Ibid., pp.49-53
[11] Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.95
[12] Ibid.
[13] Causey 1985, pp.51-3


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